The Civil War was a defining event in American history that continues to provoke ire and controversy today. But what if it never happened? I recently had the privilege of interviewing Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy, about his most recent book The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. The book recounts the fascinating story of a last-ditch effort to prevent America’s bloodiest war. In the questions below, Mark offers his insights concerning the Peace Conference and the lessons we might learn from this historic event.
JW: What motivated you to write a book about this attempt to prevent the Civil War? What do you hope this book will accomplish?
MT: The publisher hoped the story might offer our own polarizing times an example of conciliation. But the story actually shows how some disputes are not reconcilable, and conflict maybe inevitable. The story also shows there are even in failure some small steps that serve a providential purpose. I hope the story reminds that our own times are fairly tame and manageable compared to past polarization and crises.
JW: How did the conference come together? What was its intended goal?
MT: In early 1861 the country was spiraling out of control, with the union fracturing into two or possibly more sections, and civil war increasingly likely. Old former President John Tyler, who had literally known the Founders like Madison and Jefferson, possibly even meeting Washington as a boy, proposed there be one great last effort to save the union through a Peace Conference. Its purpose was a compromise that would hold the remaining states together and possibly even lure back the seceded states.
JW: How meaningful was the Peace Conference? Was it perceived as a serious effort to avert the War?
MT: The eyes of the whole country fell upon the Peace Conference. Some saw President Tyler, who presided over the convention, as a potential national savior. It w as a last chance for the generation of leaders who succeeded the Founders to find a grand national compromise, which they had been doing for decades. But by 1861 that generation’s greatest leaders were gone, and their bag of political tricks was empty, un able to address the unbridgeable national division revealed in Lincoln’s election.
JW: Were the delegates ever close to achieving a compromise? What factors prevented their ultimate success?
MT: The delegates did agree on amendments to the Constitution but not by the hoped for consensus. They approved them by bare majorities even among themselves, revealing that a national consensus for compromise was by then almost impossible. Republicans in the 1860 election were pledged against any expansion of slavery beyond where already existing. The compromise would have allowed slavery’s spread to the Southwest territories. Republicans, Lincoln above all, could not accept.
JW: In large part, the Civil War brought forth the end of slavery in the United States. Is it likely that a successful Peace Conference would have perpetuated the practice of slavery?
MT: The Peace Conference would have added to the Constitution permanent protections for slavery in perpetuity with no rescission except by unanimous consent of all states. So slavery would have continued for decades. So here’s the morally complex question: which is worse, 700,000 dead or continued slavery with no end in sight?
JW: What was the role of Christians and churches in the effort to forestall the war? In what ways might Christians especially benefit from reading the book?
MT: The churches helped to facilitate disunion and ultimately war by themselves dividing over slavery, the largest denominations, Methodism and Baptists, having split over the issue 15 years before. Every day of the Peace Conference was opened with prayer by prominent clergy of DC churches. Interestingly, with one exception, they all were or became pro-Union and anti-slavery, even the southerners among them. Lincoln’s eventual pastor was prominent among them. In fact, the delegates met in what had been until recently Gurley’s Presbyterian church.
JW: Why do you believe the Peace Conference has been forgotten? What things should the conference teach us about the Civil War and our history as a nation?
MT: The Peace Conference was a big deal in its day but has mostly been forgotten because it failed in its major purpose and is overshadowed by the largeness of the Civil War. But it had some unacknowledged achievements, like cooling national tempers for a time, allowing Lincoln to get inaugurated, and helping to solidify Union sentiment in the north and border states. The conference illustrates how honorable Christian men are still captive to their times, and typically there is no ideal political solution in any crisis. Difficult times can be sometimes managed and endured but not avoided. And we must constantly search for God’s purposes in those crises.
Mark Tooley is the president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy.