How Strongly Should Slavery Be Protected?

On February 15, 1861, the Washington Convention at the Willard Hotel considered as a body for the first time the compromise that up to that point had been in committee.  The problem was that not one compromise emerged out of the committee deliberations, but two.  Significantly, the difference between the members was over not whether to appease the slaveholding states, but how much. 

The majority proposal provided for: 1) extending the old 36-30 line of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific, with slavery allowed below the line and prohibited above it; 2) four-fifths of the Senate would be required to approve future territorial acquisitions; 3) Congress would have no power to “regulate, abolish, or control” slavery; 4) free states would have no authority within their borders to interfere with the implementation of fugitive slave legislation; 5) American participation in the African slave trade would be forever prohibited; 6) sections of the U.S. Constitution dealing with slavery could not be amended without unanimous consent of all the states; 7) if any fugitive slave was not recovered because “violence or intimidation” their owner would be financially compensated by the federal government.

Yet these provisions did not satisfy James A. Seddon, a member from Virginia, the state that had called the Washington Convention to begin with.  Seddon believed that the majority proposal was not sufficiently consistent with the Crittenden Compromise, which was supposed to form the basis for discussion by the convention.  He also did not think it addressed how Virginia wanted the Crittenden Compromise to be changed to meet its additional concerns. “The propositions reported by the majority,” Seddon wrote, “do not give, but materially weaken, the Crittenden propositions themselves, and fail to accord the [Virginia] modifications suggested.”

So Seddon proposed the following changes to the majority report to bring them more in line with the Crittenden Compromise and Virginia’s suggested changes to that compromise, particularly the latter.  Among the significant alterations were: 1) Virginia as well as Maryland would have to consent to any emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia and owners would have to be compensated (and even then slaveholders in government posts still would be permitted to bring their slaves with them to Washington, D.C.); 2) slave owners would be permitted free transit for their slaves through non-slaveholding states to other slave states; 3) Congress would have no power to tax directly slave property beyond tax levels on land; 4) where slave owners were unable to recover their slave because of “violence and intimidation” the federal government would be required to seek reimbursement from the jurisdiction involved for the fair-market value of the slave, plus any costs for the attempted recovery as well as interest; 5) jurisdictions forced to pay the federal government for fugitive slave recoveries thwarted through “violence and intimidation” would be required to sue the responsible parties to reimburse that expenditure; 6) voting or officeholding by persons of African descent in any state would be prohibited; 7) states would be free to secede from the Union in an orderly and lawful manner if they wished and be re-admitted later if two-thirds of the states agreed; 8) federal commissioners hearing fugitive slave cases would be compensated regardless of the decision they rendered (the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 paid commissioners a larger fee if they found an alleged fugitive was a slave); 9) forcing private citizens to join a posse comitatus to apprehend a fugitive slave would be limited to cases where “there shall be resistance, or danger of resistance or rescue.”

Despite Seddon’s last two provisions, designed to mollify the free states, his   version of the proposed compromise provided much stronger protections for slavery than the majority report.  Nonetheless, what united the majority and Seddon was a desire to protect slaveholders and slavery as an institution.  And slavery clearly was the issue vexing “The Old Gentlemen’s Convention,” as the Washington gathering had come to be called, and the issue dividing the free and slave states in February 1861.

To read the original language of the proposals presented at the Washington Convention on February 15, 1861, see: Official Journal of the Conference Convention held at Washington City, February, 1861 (Washington, D.C.: M’Gill and Witherow, Printers, 1861), 22-28.  This publication is available on Google Books.

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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