February 1861: "The best hope ... is that civil war and bloodshed may be avoided"

by Timothy Holt, Intern

Letter from Edward Everett to William Everett (letterbook copy), 18 February 1861

Letter from Edward Everett to William Everett (letterbook copy), 18 February 1861

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    In this four-page letter to his youngest son, Willy, a recent Harvard graduate who was studying in England, Edward Everett expresses his displeasure at not being appointed as a delegate to the Peace Conference meeting in Washington, reflects on the growing national crisis, and shares his view on what must be done to save the Union.

    Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on 11 April 1794, Edward Everett had a long political career and was one of the greatest orators of the nineteenth century. He represented Massachusetts in both the U.S. House of Representatives (1825-1835) and Senate (1853-1854), and served as governor of Massachusetts (1836-1839), minister to Great Britain (1841-1845), and secretary of state (1852-1853). Everett also served as president of Harvard (1846-1849) and was an unsuccessful candidate for the vice presidency running on the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860. As the events of the winter of 1861 unfolded, Everett vocally supported compromise to appease the southern states and avoid civil war.

    In January of 1861, the legislature of Virginia proposed a peace convention to keep the border states in the Union and to persuade the states that had joined the Confederacy to return. Twenty-one states responded and sent 133 men in all. Using the Crittenden Compromise, a package of constitutional amendments proposed by Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden in December 1860 as a starting point for debate, the Convention convened on 4 February and stayed in session throughout the month.

    Everett, who was in Washington delivering a pro-compromise petition to Congress, was disappointed that Governor John A. Andrew did not appoint him to represent Massachusetts at the conference. Initially, it appeared that Andrew, who was opposed to compromise with the South, would not send any delegates to the conference, but he recognized that by not sending delegates he might appear an advocate for war. He selected four men--George S. Boutwell, Francis Boardman Crowninshield, John Murray Forbes, and John Z. Goodrich--to represent Massachusetts. All were Republicans and political allies of Andrew who opposed the Crittenden Compromise.

    Sources for further reading

    This letter is from the Edward Everett Papers a collection of 32 boxes and 287 volumes of manuscript material available on 54 reels of microfilm.  The collection contains material relating to Everett's studies in Europe and his careers as a Harvard professor, Massachusetts senator and governor, and orator.

    Gunderston, Robert G. "The Washington Peace Conference of 1861: Selection of Delegates."  The Journal of Southern History. Vol. 24, No. 3 (August, 1958), 347-359.

    Morison, Samuel Eliot.  "The Peace Convention of February, 1861." Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. 73 (1961), 58-80.

    Varg, Paul A. Edward Everett: The Intellectual in the Turmoil of Politics. Cranbury, NJ : Associated University Press, 1992.