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The Hampton Roads Conference

Government-approved “history books” claim the War Between the States/Civil War was fought over slavery; however, the main characters in both North and South, including Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, insisted that was not the casus belli. The Hampton Roads Conference provides further insight.

In early January 1865 (after over 3½ years of struggle) American journalist Francis Blair spearheaded an effort to have both sides meet face-to-face to work out a compromise. Blair was concerned about French military presence in Mexico. He envisioned a cessation of the American conflict and re-unification to squelch this perceived threat. (Lincoln was skeptical about this proposition.) Instigated by Blair, a meeting was arranged for February 5, 1865, and the chosen location was Hampton Roads, Virginia. Thus, we have the Hampton Roads Conference.

Representing the United States was Abraham Lincoln and William Seward and representing the Confederate States was Alexander Stephens, Judge William Campbell, and R.M.T. Hunter. Seward requested an informal meeting with no official written records. However, Stephens referenced the meeting in A Constitutional View of the War Between the States: Its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results. (Campbell and Hunter both made later references to the conference.)

Lincoln said he favored cessation of hostilities as long as the Southern States pledged their loyalty to the Union and, only under those conditions, would military operations cease. Judge Campbell asked about the terms for rejoining the Union. Stephens suggested a “cooling off” period and stressed that State sovereignty would have to be recognized. Seward claimed that allowing secession would create a tenuous Union, even floating the possibility that individual States might make treaties with foreign countries.

Hunter asked about reunification and forcing the Confederate States to join with the Union Army to invade Mexico. Lincoln and Seward said that was unnecessary. The Confederates made it clear they would never agree to invade Mexico and try to force a specific government on them—that is what they were already fighting against.

The conversation moved to slavery and Stephens asked Lincoln about the status of the slave population. Lincoln made it clear the Emancipation Proclamation was simply a war measure and, if the Southern States rejoined, they could bring enough votes to defeat any amendments tied to ending the practice. He did express a desire to end all slavery within six years. Seward claimed about 200,000 slaves were freed by the proclamation and they would remain free. (Some argue the “war measure proclamation” had no legal basis and actually freed nobody.)

Stephens asked Lincoln about how Southern States representation would play out upon re-entry. Lincoln essentially said their return would be business as usual, without punishment via reconstruction or otherwise. Campbell asked Seward about the hypothetical results of freeing the slaves. Lincoln chimed in with the old cliché “let’em root”, a variation of root hog or die, which originated from the old practice of turning pigs loose and letting them fend for themselves. A blunt interpretation would be that, in Lincoln’s opinion, if they cannot make it on their own, just let them die. With independence at the forefront, the Southern delegation asked about the continued existence of West Virginia. Lincoln said it would remain a “State” even if the Southern States rejoined the Union. (Lincoln recognized the “unconstitutional secession” of West Virginia but failed to recognize the Confederate States’ exercise of self-government.)

Lincoln was confident the U.S. Government would be willing to pay $400,000,000 to compensate slave-owners. He readily admitted the North was as responsible for slavery as the South. Seward echoed the sentiment that a war-weary North would approve compensation. Stephens reiterated the significance of a cooling off period but Lincoln indicated that he was unlikely to change his mind and agree to those terms.

The Southern representatives steadily advocated for independence and the Northern representatives called for reunification. Both sides knew the continuance of slavery in an independent South was dubious given the absence of legal and constitutional protections provided by being part of the Union. Lincoln consistently supported the continuance of slavery where it existed for a limited time and voiced his disapproval of its expansion into other parts of the U.S.

Post war, Julian S. Carr, wrote a pamphlet reputing the accusation that Stephens said Lincoln produced a piece of paper with “Union” written at the top and then asked Southern representatives to write whatever they pleased after it. The implication was that Lincoln was exercising benevolence and Davis was being obstinate. Carr cites overwhelming evidence that this never happened.

The conclusion is simple. In August 1864, Jefferson Davis stated: “you may ‘emancipate’ every negro in the Confederacy, but we will be free! We will govern ourselves.” (Magness) In a nutshell – the South wanted to govern itself and the North would not allow it.


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