A powerful and skillful debater, James A. Seddon of Virginia was the self-appointed manager of the Washington Peace Conference, chaired by former President John Tyler. It is said he matched John Randolph’s contempt of all forms of Northern life, “from the statesmen of New England to the sheep that fed on her hillsides.” The irony of the North’s “hatred of slavery” is that the black man usually arrived in the America’s in the filthy holds of New England slavers, being sold by their own brethren for New England rum and Yankee notions. After the war began, Seddon became Secretary of War of the Confederate States.
Representative Preston King of New York, below, seemed unaware that his State’s ratification of the 1789 Constitution reserved to itself secession should it so desire; in assuming his office, he swore to uphold the Constitution rather than the federal government.
It is true that States to not have a “right” to secede: being sovereign entities since the 1783 Treaty of Paris with England, and only granting the federal agent specific enumerated authority in the Articles of Confederation and later Constitution, each State holds the ability to withdraw and form a more perfect union at its pleasure.
Kentucky’s James Guthrie, below, argued in the Peace Convention that New England had threatened secession several times in the past as it lost faith in the federal government to protect its interests, and that the South in 1861 was following the same path. It is said that John C. Calhoun absorbed the secessionist teachings of New Englanders.
Lacking Faith in the Government
“[Seddon] declared that the object of the dominant party of the North . . . desired that the national and practical institutions of the South should be surrounded by a cordon of twenty free States and in the end extinguished.
Seddon [emphasized] that the slaves had benefited by being brought to America and civilized. The South had done nothing wrong to the race; yet the South was assailed, attacked by the North, from the cradle to the grave, and the children of the free States had been educated to regard the people of the South as monsters of lust by the abolitionist societies and their doctrines and by their support for John Brown, and asked whether this was not a sufficient reason for suspicion and grave apprehension on the part of the South.
He contended that the moral aspect was by itself dangerous enough, and when combined with politics it was made much worse.
Seddon commented on the acquisitive spirit of the North, its ambitions for office, power, and control over government, which would permit it soon to control the South. He re-emphasized that Virginia and the Border States would not remain in the Union without added guarantees. His personal opinion was that “the purpose of Virginia to resist coercion is unchanged and unchangeable.”
James C. Smith of New York . . . pointed out that the federal government held all territory in trust for the people. John G. Goodrich of Massachusetts essentially agreed. Seddon rose to reassert the Southern point of view. He declared that in the debate two new principles had been introduced: that [Southern people had restricted access to new territories], and that governmental action would be [Northern-influenced].
This was exactly what the Southern States feared, Seddon declared, and it was the principal cause of secession. This was his interpretation of the 1860 election. These policies were, in his view, not in accordance with the Constitution.
Preston King of New York declared that all owed allegiance to the Constitution above and beyond all other political duties and obligations. In contrast to Seddon, he considered the Union to be a confederation of States under the Constitution with all citizens owing primary allegiance to the Federal Government.
[Reverdy] Johnson of Maryland, who took the Southern point of view on most questions, doubted that a State had a right to secede, although he agreed with Madison’s point in the Federalist Number 42 that the right of self-preservation and revolution was above the Constitution as an integral part of the law of nature.
Even Seddon was restrained on this point, merely observing that Virginia was debating whether or not to remain in the Union because she feared for her safety under present conditions.
Seddon contended that what the South really wanted was security from the North and its dominant political party. [James] Guthrie [of Kentucky] observed that the North once contemplated destruction of the Union because of a feeling that the federal government was antagonistic to Northern interests. The South, he said, had the same feeling now and lacked faith in the government.”
(Sectionalism in the Peace Convention of 1861, Jesse L. Keene, Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume XL, Number 1, July 1961, excerpt pp. 60-61; 69-70; 74-75)