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In February of 1861 over 100 distinguished statesmen from across the United States met at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. in an effort to reach a compromise that would prevent what would ultimately become the Civil War. The election of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party had led to excited tension in southern states where slavery was a part of every day life and where slaves were treated as property, not as people. In his 2015 work The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War, author Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, tells the story of that conference, giving the reader "a fly on the wall" perspective of the very sensitive and precarious negotiations which attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the bloody conflict that followed.

This book is exceptionally well-researched and unsparing in its detail. The author explains the events which led up to the conference, including the failed "Crittenden Plan" in which former Kentucky Whig John J. Crittenden proposed six constitutional amendments that he hoped would address all of the contentious issues between north and south. Tooley tells the reader about the participants, the city, the local clergy and churches, as well as the minutiae of the debate within the conference, the recommendations, and why the conference failed to achieve its purpose. Especially interesting is the activity of three presidents: outgoing chief executive James Buchanan, incoming President Abraham Lincoln, and former President John Tyler, who chaired the convention. It was interesting to learn how a number of other prominent leaders, some famous for their past, others famous for their future, participated in these historic meetings. These include General Winfield Scott, future Treasury Secretary and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, former first lady Julia Tyler, Commodore Robert Stockton and Roger Baldwin (who defended the Amistad litigants along with John Quincy Adams).

For me, two themes especially came to the forefront. Firstly, it seems so foreign and offensive to read how, at the time, it was perfectly natural for those in the south to see nothing wrong with the notion of one human being owning and enslaving another, based on the color of the enslaved person's skin. None of the natural revulsion and repugnance to this concept that we would have today for such an idea arises out of any of the rhetoric of the southerners, who constantly refer to the enslaved as their "property." It is even more astounding to think that the slaveholders saw themselves somehow as victims when they contemplated the prospect of any interference with the institution of slavery. Secondly, it was disheartening to think that, while the participants were well aware of the stakes that came with failure of their goal, many were still unwilling to compromise in the least. Reading about the debates is also a reminder that there have always been those who love the sound of their own voice, oblivious to finding actual solutions. The garrulous politician is not a creature of recent invention. There have always been such persons and probably always will be.


Tooley is to be commended for his thoroughness both in his research and in his description of what transpired, and why the conference failed to meet its goal. This is an excellent account of a little known chapter in Civil War history. Last night I was thinking of how grateful I am to be living at a time when there are so many excellent historians who excel at their craft. Mark Tooley certainly exemplifies this.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 23rd, 2016 10:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks for a great review, I knew hardly anything about this conference. Have added the book to my list.
Jan. 24th, 2016 05:53 am (UTC)
I'm a history geek, so I really enjoy this kind of stuff. I hope you like it too.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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