Appeasing Slaveholders: House Resolution of February 11, 1861

On February 12, 1861, the Daily National Intelligencer reported on the activity of the U.S. House of Representatives the previous day.  Like the Washington Convention meeting at Willard Hotel, the members of the House desperately wanted to preserve the Union.  On that day, they debated measures that might accomplish that goal.

Orris S. Ferry of Connecticut suggested a resolution to investigate the feasibility of a constitutional amendment mandating that a state could not secede without the approval of two-thirds of Congress, the President, and all the other states.  “Resolved, That the Committee on the Judiciary be instructed to inquire into the expediency of amending the Constitution of the United States so as expressly to forbid the withdrawal of any State from the Union without the consent of two-thirds of both Houses of Congress, the approval of the President, and the consent of all the States.

James B. McKean of New York put forward a resolution to study whether the border states secession might be prevented and their ties to the northern states strengthened through a program of compensated emancipation in that region.  “Whereas the Gulf States have assumed to secede from the Union, and it is deemed important to prevent the Border Slave States from following their example; and whereas it is believed that those who are inflexibly opposed to any measure of compromise or concession that involves or may involve a sacrifice of principle or the extension of slavery would nevertheless cheerfully concur in any lawful measure for the emancipation of the slaves; Therefore, Resolved, That the select committee of five be instructed to inquire whether, by the consent of the people or of the State Governments, or by compensating the slaveholders, it be practicable for the General Government to procure the emancipation of the slaves in some or all of the Border States, and, if so, to report a bill for that purpose.

As the representatives of the remaining slave states vigorously objected to both the Ferry and McKean resolutions they never came up for a vote.  Neither resolution gave the South the security for the institution of slavery that they demanded.  So in end, the House unanimously passed a resolution giving the southern members what they wanted.  The resolution stated simply: “Resolved, That neither Congress, the People, nor the Governments of the Non-slaveholding States have the constitutional right to legislate upon or interfere with slavery in any of the Slaveholding States of the Union.

This resolution, combined with activities of the Washington Convention, would lead to a constitutional amendment passing Congress in early March 1861, promising the slave states to disempower anyone except the slave states themselves from ever again legislating the peculiar institution.  So it is clear with the future of slavery vexing the slave states, and with Abraham Lincoln now on his way to Washington, D.C. (he left his home in Springfield the same day as the February 11 resolution passed), Congress was working rapidly to satisfy the South before the new president, with his strong opposition to slavery’s spread, had the power to weigh in.  But clearly, slavery was at the nexus of southern discontent and eleventh-hour attempts to preserve the Union.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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1 Response to Appeasing Slaveholders: House Resolution of February 11, 1861

  1. Margaret D. Blough says:

    It also makes it clear how totally hostile the Deep South states were to any attempt to placate them. If all they wanted was to be left alone, these proposals would have done it. What they wanted wasn’t acceptance of slavery were it was; what they wanted was unqualified and unanimous approval of slavery not only where it was now but wherever slaveholders wanted to take their slaves with dissent being ruthlessly suppressed the way it had been within these slave states.

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