-- Background --

Compromise Efforts

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Threats to the Union were not unique to the period following Lincoln's election. Significant strains to national unity had erupted in earlier times, notably during the Missouri statehood crisis (1820-1821), the nullification controversy (1832-1833), and the aftermath of the Mexican War (1849-1850). On each of these occasions, political leaders managed to find a compromise that dissipated the danger. Inevitably, compromise proposals were now offered to avert this new possibility of civil war.

Two measures became the main vehicles for compromise hopes. The first emanated from the second session of the Thirty-sixth Congress, the lame-duck session, which met in the interim between Lincoln's election and his inauguration. It assembled on December 3, 1860, and attention centered on a proposal by a border-state Whig, Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky. Consisting of a series of constitutional amendments and resolutions, the key Crittenden Compromise was a constitutional amendment to revive the Missouri Compromise line by extending the southern boundary of Missouri (36 degrees, 30 minutes) west to the Pacific Ocean. It would prohibit slavery in territories north of the line and protect, not just permit, slavery in territories south of the line, including any areas to be added to the United States in the future. In short, slavery would exist in any present or future territories south of the line, but be prohibited north of it. This Crittenden amendment would thereby introduce the word "slavery" into the Constitution for the first time.

The second compromise effort involved a call by the Virginia legislature for a meeting of delegates from all the states to convene in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 1861. As the traditional leader of the South, and the birthplace of many Presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, Virginia was a pivotal state. Although it no longer carried the influence it once had, Virginia's opinion still counted, especially among those eight slaveholding states which, like it, remained in the Union.

Although the entire deep South and a few northern states refused to send delegates, some twenty-one states did. The former President, John Tyler of Virginia, (1841-1845), now seventy-one years old, presided over the meeting. With the delegates divided in opinion and seemingly devoid of new ideas, the Peace Conference struggled to find common ground. Toward the end of February, it finally adopted a plan, the leading element of which closely resembled the Crittenden idea of extending the Missouri Compromise line westward. It transmitted its proposal to Congress shortly before Congress adjourned.

Although Lincoln would not take office until March 4, 1861, as leader of the Republican party and as President-elect, he could sway people and influence events. Southerners and northerners alike certainly thought so, and they called upon him to take a stand on matters of policy, such as the Crittenden Compromise.


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