The Crittenden Compromise to Prevent the Civil War

A Last Ditch Effort Proposed by a Kentucky Senator

Engraved portrait of Senator John J. Crittenden
Senator John J. Crittenden. Getty Images

The Crittenden Compromise was an attempt to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War during the period when slave states were beginning to secede from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln. The attempt to broker a peaceful solution, which was led by a respected Kentucky politician in late 1860 and early 1861, would have required significant changes to the U.S. Constitution.

Had the effort succeeded, the Crittenden Compromise would have been yet another in a series of compromises which preserved slavery in the United States in order to keep the Union together.

The proposed compromise had proponents who may have been sincere in their efforts to preserve the Union through peaceful means. Yet it was mainly supported by southern politicians who saw it as a way to make slavery permanent. And for the legislation to pass through Congress, members of the Republican Party would have been required to surrender on matters of basic principles.

The legislation drafted by Senator John J. Crittenden was complicated. And, it was also audacious, as it would have added six Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Despite those obvious obstacles, Congressional votes on the compromise were fairly close. Yet it was doomed when the president-elect, Abraham Lincoln, signaled his opposition to it.

The failure of the Crittenden Compromise angered political leaders of the South. And deeply felt resentment contributed to the increasing intensity of feeling that led to the secession of more slave states and the eventual outbreak of war.

 

The Situation In Late 1860

The issue of slavery had been dividing Americans since the founding of the nation, when passage of the Constitution required compromises recognizing the legal enslavement of human beings. In the decade preceding the Civil War slavery became the central political issue in America.

The Compromise of 1850 had been intended to satisfy concerns over slavery in new territories. Yet it also brought forward a new Fugitive Slave Act, which infuriated citizens in the North, who felt compelled to not only accept, but essentially participate, in slavery.

The novel Uncle Tom's Cabin brought the issue of slavery into American living rooms when it appeared in 1852. Families would gather and read the book aloud, and its characters, all of them dealing with slavery and its moral implications, made the issue seem highly personal.

Other events of the 1850s, including the Dred Scott Decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and John Brown's raid on a federal arsenal, made slavery in inescapable issue. And the formation of the new Republican Party, which had opposition to the spread of slavery into new states and territories as a central principle, made slavery a central issue in electoral politics.

When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, slave states in the South refused to accept the results of the election and began to threaten to leave the Union. In December, the state of South Carolina, which had long been a hotbed of pro-slavery sentiment, held a convention and declared it was seceding.

 

And it looked like the Union would already be split before the new president's inauguration on March 4, 1861.

Role of John J. Crittenden

As the threats of slave states to leave the Union began to sound quite serious following Lincoln's election, northerners reacted with surprise and increasing concern. In the South, motivated activists, dubbed Fire Eaters, stoked outrage and encouraged secession.

An elderly senator from Kentucky, John J. Crittenden, stepped up to try to broker some solution. Crittenden, who was born in Kentucky in 1787, had been well educated and became a prominent lawyer. In 1860 he had been active in politics for 50 years, and had represented Kentucky as both a member of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator.

As a colleague of the late Henry Clay, a Kentuckian who had become known as the Great Compromiser, Crittenden felt a genuine desire to try to hold the Union together.

Crittenden was widely respected on Capitol Hill and in political circles, but he was not a national figure of the stature of Clay, or his comrades in what had been known as the Great Triumvirate, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun.

On December 18, 1860, Crittenden introduced his legislation in the Senate. His bill began by noting "serious and alarming dissensions have arisen between the Northern and Southern States, concerning the rights and security of the rights of the slaveholding States..."

The bulk of his bill contained six articles, each of which Crittenden hoped to pass through both houses of Congress with a two-thirds vote so that they might become six new amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

A central component of Crittenden's legislation was that it would have used the same geographic line used in the Missouri Compromise, 36 degrees and 30 minutes of latitude. States and territories north of that line could not allow slavery, and states to the south of the line would have legal slavery.

And the various articles also sharply curtailed the power of Congress to regulate slavery, or even abolish it at some future date. Some of the legislation proposed by Crittenden would also toughen fugitive slave laws.

Reading the text of Crittenden's six articles, it's hard to see what the North would achieve by accepting the proposals beyond avoiding a potential war. For the South, the Crittenden Compromise would have made slavery permanent.

Defeat In Congress

When it appeared obvious that Crittenden couldn't get his legislation through Congress, he proposed an alternative plan: the proposals would be submitted to the voting public as a referendum.

The Republican president elect, Abraham Lincoln, who was still in Springfield, Illinois, had indicated that he did not approve of Crittenden's plan. And when legislation to submit the referendum was introduced in Congress in January 1861, but Republican legislators used delaying tactics to ensure that the matter got bogged down.

A New Hampshire senator, Daniel Clark, made a motion that Crittenden's legislation be tabled and another resolution substituted for it.

That resolution stated that no changes to the Constitution were required to preserve the Union, that the Constitution as it was would suffice.

In an increasingly contentious atmosphere on Capitol Hill the southern legislators boycotted the votes on that measure. The Crittenden Compromise thus came to an end in Congress, though some supporters still tried to rally behind it.

Crittenden's plan, especially given its complicated nature, may have always been doomed. But the leadership of Lincoln, who was not yet president but was firmly in control of the Republican Party, was likely the main factor in ensuring that Crittenden's effort failed. 

Efforts to Revive the Crittenden Compromise

Oddly enough, a month after Crittenden's effort came to an end on Capitol Hill, there were still efforts to revive it. The New York Herald, the influential newspaper published by the eccentric James Gordon Bennett, published an editorial urging a revival of the Crittenden Compromise. The editorial urged the unlikely prospect that president-elect Lincoln, in his inaugural address, should embrace the Crittenden Compromise.

Before Lincoln took office, another attempt to forestall the outbreak of war occurred in Washington. A peace conference was arranged by politicians including former president John Tyler. That plan came to nothing. When Lincoln took office his inaugural address made mention of the ongoing secession crisis, of course, but he did not offer any grand compromises to the South.

And, of course, when Fort Sumter was shelled in April 1861 the nation was on its way to war. The Crittenden Compromise was never entirely forgotten, however. Newspapers still tended to mention it for about a year after the outbreak of the war, as if it was a land chance to avoid the conflict which was becoming more violent with each passing month.

Legacy of the Crittenden Compromise

Senator John J. Crittenden died on July 26, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. He never lived to see the Union restored, and his plan, of course was never enacted. When General George McClellan ran for president in 1864, on a platform of essentially ending the war, there was occasional talk of proposing a peace plan that would resemble the Crittenden Compromise. But Lincoln was reelection and Crittenden and his legislation faded into history.

Crittenden had remained loyal to the Union, and played a major part in keeping Kentucky, one of the crucial border states, in the Union. And though he was a frequent critic of the Lincoln administration, he was widely respected on Capitol Hill.

An obituary of Crittenden appeared on the front page of the New York Times on July 28, 1863. After detailing his long career, it ended with an eloquent passage nothing his role in trying to keep the nation out of the Civil War:

"These propositions he advocated with all the art of oratory of which he was master; but his arguments failed to influence the opinions of a majority of members, and the resolutions were defeated. Throughout the trials and unhappiness that have since visited the nation, Mr. Crittenden has remained loyal to the Union and consistent to his views, eliciting from all men, even from those who differed most widely from him in opinion, the respect which is never withheld from those against whom the breath of slander has never been whispered."

In the years following the war Crittenden was remembered as a man who tried to be a peacemaker. An acorn, brought from his native Kentucky, was planted at the National Botanic Garden in Washington as a tribute to Crittenden. The acorn sprouted and the tree flourished. A 1928 article on the "Crittenden Peace Oak" appeared in the New York Times, and described how the tree had grown into a large and beloved tribute to the man who tried to prevent the Civil War.