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Former President John Tyler Makes a Last Attempt for Peace in 1861 – Two Months Before He Voted for Virginia Secession
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In January 1861, former president John Tyler issued a call for a “Peace Conference” to resolve sectional division and avert Civil War. Here, he writes to Washington D.C. Mayor James G. Berret to thank the City Council and the Willard brothers for providing the concert hall at the Willard Hotel for the meeting. The meeting convened on February 4, 1861 with 131 representatives from fourteen free and seven slave states attended, none from the deep south. Tyler made opening remarks to the audience that included six former cabinet members, nineteen ex-governors, fourteen former senators, fifty former representatives, and twelve state Supreme Court justices. But seven southern states had already seceded, and representatives were already meeting in Montgomery to form a new Confederacy.

JOHN TYLER. Autograph Letter Signed, to James G. Berret, written from Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel (at the corner of 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where twenty years earlier, he had taken the oath of office after the death of President William Henry Harrison), February 3, 1861. 1 p., 7¼ x 9¼ in.

Inventory #23993.01       Price: $5,500

Complete Transcript

                                                                        Brown’s Hotel

                                                                        Feb. 3, 1861

My Dear Sir;

            Your letter of the 30 January informing me that the City Council through the liberal kindness of the Messrs Willards in view of the proposed meeting of Commissioners from the several States on the 4th Inst had placed at the disposition of the Commissioners “Willards Concert Hall” reached me on Friday afternoon at my residence in Virginia, and I take the earliest moment of acknowledging its receipt and to express the belief that it will be accepted by the Commissioners with becoming thankfulness. I will submit to them your letter at their earliest meeting. I shall take leave to notify a meeting at the Hall through the medium of the morning papers, at 12 O’Clock to morrow

                                                           With high respect / I am Dr Sir / Resply & Truly yrs

                                                                        John Tyler

His honor / The Mayor / of Washington

Historical Background

A committee with one representative from each state was formed to draft proposals for peace. Their plan to deal with slavery in the territories was to simply extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean. This failed to satisfy many on both sides, including President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Tyler voted against the seven resolutions adopted by the conference he had called. The resolutions were sent to Congress, where they were rejected by the Senate 28 to 7 and never came to a vote in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, on the day the Peace Conference opened, Tyler was also elected to the Virginia Secession Convention, which convened in Richmond on February 13, while the Peace Conference was still underway. Tyler voted for secession on April 4, though the convention rejected it. On April 17, after the attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops, the motion was voted on again, and passed.

John Tyler (1790-1862) was born in Virginia and graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1807. He was admitted to the bar at the age of 19, while his father was governor of Virginia. The younger Tyler started a law practice in Richmond. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1816 to 1821, as Virginia governor from 1825 to 1827, and as U.S. Senator from 1827 to 1836. In 1841, he became the tenth President of the United States and the first president to be elevated to office from the vice presidency, as William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. Tyler’s ascension led to the Constitutional question of whether he was actually president or still the vice president merely performing presidential duties. From his perspective, he had properly assumed the office, and he delivered an inaugural address. Dubbed “His Accidency” by critics, Tyler refused to fall under Henry Clay’s influence and instead charted his own course as president, leading to vetoes, Cabinet resignations and an impeachment attempt.

President Tyler sought to strengthen the Union through territorial expansion, favoring the annexation of Texas which was completed by his successor James Polk. Tyler retired to his Virginia plantation Sherwood Forest. In February 1861, he chaired a convention in Washington to avert civil war but disapproved of the convention’s proposed resolutions and then presided over the Virginia Secession Convention, which removed that state from the Union. He later served in the Provisional Confederate Congress until his death.

James G. Berret (1815-1901) was born in Maryland and had only two years of formal education. He served in the Maryland legislature for two years, and was appointed by President Martin Van Buren to an office in the Treasury Department in 1839. Berret moved to Washington, D.C., and worked in the Treasury until 1850, when he began his own business as an agent prosecuting claims on the federal government. In 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed him postmaster of the District of Columbia. In 1858 and again in 1860, Berret narrowly defeated U.S. Marshal Richard Wallach, for the position of mayor of Washington. When Berret refused to take a loyalty oath in 1861, Secretary of State William H. Seward had him arrested. After three weeks of imprisonment, Seward released him on the condition that he resign as mayor. Berret eventually became friends with Lincoln, and President Ulysses S. Grant later appointed him to the board of police commissioners in 1872, a position he held until 1877.


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