A Report of the Debates and Proceedings in the Secret Sessions of the Conference Convention, for Proposing Amendments to the Constitution of the United States

Author: Lucius Eugene Chittenden  | Date: 1864

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Last Effort at Compromise (1861)

REPORTED BY DELEGATE LUCIUS EUGENE CHITTENDEN

MR. FIELD . . . I will modify my motion, and state it in this way . . .

"It is declared to be the true intent and meaning of the present Constitution, that the Union of the States under it is indissoluble." . . .

Mr. COALTER:—We have not met here for any such purpose as that indicated in the present amendment. We are not here to discuss the question of secession. We are here because the Border States are alarmed for their own safety. We wish them to remain in the Union.

The purpose of our consultations is to make an arrangement under which they can stay in the Union. If we do not confine ourselves to that purpose, and leave these questions alone, our differences may be submitted to a greater than any human judge. I hope, in Heaven’s name, they will not be submitted to the arbitrament of battle. . . .

Mr. PRICE . . . I believe in the doctrine of the gentleman from New York. That is the doctrine of my State; but I believe in a great many other things which it is not necessary to insert in the Constitution. We came here to treat a fact, a great fact. There is a Southern Confederacy—there is a President DAVIS—there is a Government organized within the Union hostile to the United States. . . .

. . . Shall we sit here debating abstract questions when State after State is seceding? I hope not. . . . We all agree to the principle contained in this amendment; but if we adopt it and make it a part of the Constitution, we could never, under it, bring back the seceded States. They will not admit the principle. What is to be gained, then, by adopting it? . . .

[Mr. KING.] Myself and the majority of my colleagues differ from the majority of the Conference. . . . We do not intend to be driven from our position by threats or by intimidation. We believe that it is eminently proper for this Conference to express its decided convictions upon the question of secession. We are told here that secession is a fact. Then let us deal with it as such. I go for the enforcement of the laws passed in pursuance of the Constitution. I will never give up the idea that this is a Government of the people, and possessing within itself the power of enforcing its own decrees. This I shall never do. This Conference could perform no nobler act than that of sending to the country the announcement that the union of the States under the Constitution is indissoluble, and that secession is but another term for rebellion. . . .

I will occupy no farther time. I wish to live in peace and harmony with our brethren in the slave States. But I wish to put upon the record here a statement of the fact that this is a Government of the people, and not a compact of States.

Mr. PALMER . . . Are we to be gravely told that secession and treason are not proper subjects for our consideration? To be told this when every mail that comes to us from the South is loaded with both these crimes? Sir, we have commenced wrong. The first thing we ought to have done was to declare that these were crimes, and that we would not negotiate with those who denied the authority of the Government, and claimed to have thrown off their allegiance to it. Far better would it be for the country if, instead of debating the question of slavery in reference to our Territories, we had set to work to strengthen the hands of the Government, and to put down the treason which threatens its existence.

You, gentlemen of the slave States, say that we of the North use fair words, that we promise fairly, but you insist that you will not rely upon our promises, and you demand our bond as security that we will keep them. I return the statement to you with interest. You, gentlemen, talk fairly also—give us your bond! You have been talking fairly for the last dozen or twenty years, and yet this treason, black as night, has been plotted among you, and twelve years ago one of your statesmen predicted the very state of things which now exists. I am willing to give bonds, but I want our action in this respect to be reciprocal. I want your bond against secession, and I ask it because seven States in sympathy with you have undertaken to set up an independent Government—have placed over it a military chieftain who asserts that we, the people of the United States, are foreigners, and must be treated with as a foreign nation.

. . . Will you, gentlemen of the South, declare that you will stand by the Union, and brand secession as treasonable? If you will, you must vote for this amendment.

Mr. HOWARD:—I am sure no member of this Conference could have listened to the remarks of the two gentlemen who have last spoken without the deepest regret. It has been intimated here that Maryland will secede unless she secures these guarantees. I do not know whether she will or not. I know there is danger that she will. . . .

Yes, gentlemen, we are all in danger. The storm is raging; Virginia has hung her flag at half-mast as a signal of distress. If Virginia secedes our State will go with her, hand in hand, with Providence as our guide. This is not intended as a threat. GOD forbid! It is a truth which we cannot and ought not to conceal.

Why will not New York and Massachusetts for once be magnanimous? Why will they not follow the glorious example of Rhode Island? If they will, I should still have hope. But if those two great States are against us, I can see nothing but gloom in the future. . . .

The PRESIDENT:—The question now recurs on the amendment offered by the gentleman from New York—Mr. FIELD. . . .

. . . the amendment was disagreed to. . . .

Mr. WICKLIFFE:—I hope now that we may be permitted to take the vote at once upon the report of the majority.

Mr. REID:—Before this vote is taken, I deem it my duty to myself and my State to make a remark.

I came here disposed to agree upon terms that would be mutually satisfactory to both sections of the Union. I would agree to any fair terms now, but the propositions contained in the report of the majority, as that report now stands, can never receive my assent. I cannot recommend them to Congress or to the people of my own State. They do not settle the material questions involved; they contain no sufficient guarantees for the rights of the South. Therefore, in good faith to the Conference and to the country, I here state that I cannot and will not agree to them.

Mr. CLEVELAND:—If the gentlemen from the South, after we have yielded so much as we have, assert that these propositions will not be satisfactory to the slave States, I, for one, will not degrade myself by voting for them. . . .

Mr. BARRINGER . . . I know the people of the South, and I tell you this hollow compromise will never satisfy them, nor will it bring back the seceded States. We are acting for the people who are not here. We are their delegates that have come here, not to demand indemnity for the past, but security for the future. . . .

Mr. STOCKTON . . . I have heard these discussions with pain from the commencement. Shall we deliberate over any proposition which shall save the Union? The country is in jeopardy. We are called upon to save it. New Jersey and Delaware came here for that purpose, and no other. They have laid aside every other motive; they have yielded every thing to the general good of the country.

The report of the majority of the committee meets their concurrence. Republicans and Democrats alike, have dropped their opinions, for politics should always disappear in the presence of a great question like this. Politics should not be thought of in view of the question of disunion. By what measure of execration will posterity judge a man who contributed toward the dissolution of the Union? Shall we stand here and higgle about terms when the roar of the tornado is heard that threatens to sweep our Government from the face of the earth? Believe me, sir, this is a question of peace or war. . . .

The PRESIDENT . . . the question will be taken on the motion of the gentleman from Kentucky for the adoption of the first section, which the Secretary will now read.

SECTION 1. In all the present territory of the United States north of the parallel of 36° 30′ of north latitude, involuntary servitude, except in punishment of crime, is prohibited. In all the present territory south of that line, the status of persons held to involuntary service or labor, as it now exists, shall not be changed; nor shall any law be passed by Congress or the Territorial Legislature to hinder or prevent the taking of such persons from any of the States of this Union to said territory, nor to impair the rights arising from said relation; but the same shall be subject to judicial cognizance in the Federal courts, according to the course of the common law. When any Territory north or south of said line, within such boundary as Congress may prescribe, shall contain a population equal to that required for a member of Congress, it shall, if its form of government be republican, be admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, with or without involuntary servitude, as the Constitution of such State may provide.

The question on agreeing to said section resulted as follows—Indiana declining to vote:

AVES.—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee—8.

NOES.—Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Virginia—11.

And the section was not agreed to. . . .

The vote was taken in the midst of much partially suppressed excitement, and the announcement of the vote of different. States occasioned many sharp remarks of dissent or approval. After the vote was announced, for some minutes no motion was made, and the delegates engaged in an informal conversation.

Mr. TURNER finally moved a reconsideration of the vote.

Mr. GRANGER:—To say that I am disappointed by the result of this vote, would fail to do justice to my feelings. I move that the Conference adjourn until half-past seven o’clock this evening. I think it well for those gentlemen from the slave States especially, who have by their votes defeated the compromise we have labored so long and so earnestly to secure, to take a little time for consideration. Gentlemen we have yielded much to your fears, much to your apprehensions; we have gone to the very verge of propriety in giving our assent to the committee’s report. We have incurred the censure of some of our own people, but we were willing to take the risk of all this censure in order to allay your apprehensions. We expected you to meet us in the path of compromise. Instead of that you reject and spurn our propositions. Take time, gentlemen, for reflection. Beware how you spurn this report, and incur the awful responsibility which will follow. Reject it, and if the country is plunged in war, and the Union endangered, you are the men who will be held responsible. . . .

The motion to reconsider was then adopted by a vote of 14 ayes to 5 noes, and the Conference adjourned to seven o’clock and thirty minutes this evening.

L. E. Chittenden, (New York, 1864), 398–439 passim.

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Chicago: Lucius Eugene Chittenden, A Report of the Debates and Proceedings in the Secret Sessions of the Conference Convention, for Proposing Amendments to the Constitution of the United States in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed December 4, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RP9RJAECNRLDT8S.

MLA: Chittenden, Lucius Eugene. A Report of the Debates and Proceedings in the Secret Sessions of the Conference Convention, for Proposing Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 4 Dec. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RP9RJAECNRLDT8S.

Harvard: Chittenden, LE, A Report of the Debates and Proceedings in the Secret Sessions of the Conference Convention, for Proposing Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 4 December 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RP9RJAECNRLDT8S.