[The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War by Mark Tooley (Thomas Nelson, 2015). Hardcover, photos, illustrations, notes, index. 315 pp. ISBN:978-0-7180-2223-5 $26.99]
In February 1861 a group of 131 commissioners representing twenty-one free and slave states met at Willard's Hotel in Washington with the goal of reaching a compromise agreement that would avert disunion and prevent a likely civil war. Differing little from the earlier Crittenden Compromise proposals, their recommendations similarly failed to gain any traction in Congress or among the newly elected Republican leadership and the rest is history. The story of the earnest yet ultimately fruitless Washington Peace Conference of 1861 is the subject of Mark Tooley's The Peace that Almost Was.
All of the conference delegates could probably be classified as either conditional or unconditional unionists but it was clear from the start that fundamental (and likely irreconcilable) differences would derail any kind of compromise that would satisfy southern politicians as to legal protections accorded slavery both within the South and throughout prospective national territories. Distrust was abundant on both sides and some delegates seemed attentive only to sounding out the intentions of the other side, only feigning interest in finding acceptable "adjustments" to the nation's problems. Many southern observers viewed northern participation in the conference as being conducted in bad faith, with their only goal being to delay the possibility of Border State and Upper South secession until President-elect Lincoln was inaugurated and firmly seated at Washington. On the other side of the divide, some northern partisans viewed southern compromise efforts as thinly disguised blackmail.
The Peace Conference itself, chaired by former president John Tyler, begins at the book's halfway point and those readers primarily seeking a detailed chronological account of the nearly three week long proceedings along with in-depth historical analysis of each point of debate will be largely disappointed. Tooley does describe each day's events but they are brief summaries written in the fashion of popular narrative (which he does quite well and in an evenhanded manner), with a heavy focus on personalities over procedures. Fairly or not, the conference comes across in the book as rather disorganized. Even though reporters were officially banned from attending, it's apparent that media leaks were prevalent as, in addition to Vermont commissioner Lucius Chittenden's journal, newspapers comprise much of the source material for Tooley's account. As stated above, the conference was clearly a failure, with everyone surely recognizing that the suggested amendments (among them even stronger fugitive slave laws, a new law requiring sectional approval of new territory acquisition, and guaranteed slavery protections where it already existed) would be dead on arrival in the halls of Congress. Those that still believe that slavery was not the cornerstone of
secession should also be reminded that nearly every point of debate
discussed at the conference directly involved that institution.
Key to any negotiation is establishing the authority of the representatives of each side and in this case the delegates could only offer suggestions to the elected officials in Washington. It's unclear from reading the book how the country as a whole regarded the prospects of the peace conference. The advanced age of most of the commissioners led many newspaper editors to dismiss the entire effort on the grounds of fogy-ism.
A curious aspect of the book is just how much of it focuses on the religious institutions of the nation's capital. Tooley devotes a great deal of space in the book to the city's churches and the men that led them. With the religious study backgrounds of both author and publisher, this special concern is not surprising but how it benefits this particular book is unclear given that religious leaders had no real role in the conference beyond opening prayers. Nevertheless, it might interest some readers to know that nearly all of the many clergymen profiled in the book were unionist and anti-slavery in sentiment.
The title The Peace that Almost Was is a bit misleading as nothing in the book suggests that any kind of satisfactory sectional agreement was in the offing but Tooley's work generally succeeds as an engaging and well balanced popular history of the Washington Peace Conference. On the other hand, those seeking a deeper and wider scholarly analysis of the proceeding will have to look elsewhere for satisfaction.