My opinion is that no state can, in any way lawfully, get out of the Union, without the consent of the others.
Abraham Lincoln, to Thurlow Weed, December 17, 1860
I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union... Secession is nothing but revolution....Secession is nothing but revolution.
Robert E. Lee, to his eldest son, January 23, 1861
Lincoln didn't want it; Lee didn't want it; not even the five living ex-presidents, who couldn't agree on anything, wanted it: but the war would come. Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan all tried to stop it - though in this, as in most everything else, they failed...
Martin Van Buren, as befits the eldest, would seem to have gone first. When, a month after Lincoln's election, Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden offered his eponymous compromise, Van Buren embraced it fully. The Constitution, he asserted, was a perpetual and irrevocable compact, and therefore, it ought to be amended - per Crittenden: guarantee slavery's existence in the South, its prohibition in the North, and its expansion, along the old lines of the Missouri Compromise, all the way to the Pacific. Fillmore agreed. The Crittendon Compromise, he opined, ought to be the basis of a settlement. Buchanan, too - busy floundering in office until March 4th - had faith in the proposal Pierce, during this fraught period was, not surprisingly, essentially mute. (Suffering from a pulmonary complaint, and in his unhappiness at both secessionism and Lincoln, perhaps imbibing, he would wait until after the fall of Fort Sumter to write to Van Buren, asking him to ask the other ex-Presidents to gather to try and stop the war.) Only "His Accidency", John Tyler, managed to convene a Conference, on February 4, 1861, in Washington, to stop it. By then, seven Southern states had already seceded - and the incoming president adamant that while he would not dispute slavery's legality where it already existed, nor would he permit it to spread.
The Washington Peace Conference, a last ditch effort to end the growing conflict peaceably, was so peaceable in itself, however, that it amounted to little more than, as it was labeled, the "old gentlemen's convention." Meeting in the Willard Hotel (in which Lincoln, newly arrived in the Capitol, was installed on the Conference's 16th day, in a corner suite on the second floor) its members included six former cabinet members, nineteen ex-governors, fourteen former senators, fifty former representatives, twelve state supreme court justices, and of course John Tyler, a former president, who politely presided, for about a month, over a well-meaning gathering of venerable fossils.
Lincoln, who slipped into Washington and the Willard Hotel on the 16th day of Conference, actually met with many of the 132 delegates - those, anyway, who deigned accept his invitation to call upon him. Viewed by many as an ignoramus, a clown and a vulgarian, Southern delegates in particular only wanted to gawk. Yet as was usually the case, face-to-face, Lincoln made a good impression on the delegates. How he felt about their deliberations, however, no one knew. His attitude seemed benign, but his hope, in reserve. That may have well been the Washington Peace Conference itself: a month of mannerly debate on a subject - slavery - which was, by February 1861, politically insoluble.
The Conference, of course, failed to have any effect, and Tyler gave up all hope of saving the Union. Instead, he would soon come to advocate the secession of the Southern States – "soon", in fact, being "soonest": one day after the close of the Conference, he urged the secession of his native Virginia. From there, it was downhill all the way. On August 1, 1861, Tyler served as a delegate to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States - and in November, was elected a member of the Confederate Congress. Mercifully for what was left of his reputation, he died before the Congress assembled. His death - and this too was a first - was officially ignored by United States government.
Here Tyler certifies Lucius Chittenden of Vermont, as a delegate from Vermont. Chittenden took it upon himself to take the minutes of the Conference and indeed, published them three years later. His A Report of the Debates and Proceedings in the Secret Sessions of the Conference Convention for Proposing Amendments to the Constitution of the United States held at Washington, D.C. in February, A.D. 1861 is, still, an indispensable guide to its 19 days of deliberations.