Fifteen years shy of its centennial, the nation sat astride a political powder keg with the secession of several gulf states from the Union and a tenuous standoff at Fort Sumter, S.C. After several failed attempts by Congress to defuse the volatile situation through legislative compromise, Virginia called for a national convention to resolve the political conflict over states' rights and the slavery issue.
Virginia, looking to reassert itself as a leader among the Southern states, extended an invitation to all states to join the Old Dominion in an "earnest effort to adjust the controversies in the spirit in which the Constitution was originally formed." They were to meet in Washington on Feb. 4, 1861, "to consider, and, if practicable, to agree upon some suitable adjustment."
Representatives from 14 states gathered in Washington that day. Delegates from seven other states arrived later, which meant that nearly two-thirds of the Union was represented.
John Tyler, one of five ex-presidents then alive, was elected chairman of the conference.
The elder statesman, however, had been at the diplomatic forefront weeks earlier. Leaving his post as chancellor of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Tyler had traveled to Washington to request that President James Buchanan refrain from "all acts calculated to produce a collision of arms."
Tyler's arrival in the nation's capital on Jan. 24 coincided with the departure of the warship Brooklyn, presumably sailing toward Fort Sumter in Charleston or Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Fla., with reinforcements and supplies aboard. Buchanan assured Tyler that the ship had no hostile purpose but was traveling on an "errand of mercy and relief." The president also agreed to draft a letter to Congress recommending that the legislative body avoid the "passage of any hostile legislation."
Successful in his attempt to avoid derailment of the peace talks before they even began, the ex-president focused his efforts on forging a peaceful resolution to the political conflict gripping the nation.
Coinciding with the peace conference's efforts to bring the nation together, however, a delegation of gulf states representatives, including Jefferson Davis, gathered in Mobile, Ala., to divide the Union by forming a separate government of the Confederate …