Following Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election, 11 southern states seceded from the Union. Slavery and states' rights had been at the center of the election, and Lincoln had vowed during his campaign to not restrict slavery where it already existed, but to limit its expansion to the western territories. 

A series of concessions to the slaveholding southern states, from the Missouri Compromise in 1820 to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, had helped manage sectional crisis and hold the Union together. Some lawmakers saw the prospect of another compromise as the nation's best bet for survival.

“The word [Union] meant a nation united by compromise, preserved through the careful balancing of Southern interests and Northern ones, of slavery and freedom,” wrote Adam Goodheart in 1861: The Civil War Awakening. “Now, in the wake of Lincoln’s election, the nation’s only hope was to stitch together yet another new compromise, by which to continue sheltering both freedom and bondage beneath the same threadbare tent.”

Between Lincoln’s election and the start of the Civil War when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, there were three major attempts to avert secession and Civil War: the Crittenden Compromise, the Washington Peace Convention and Corwin’s Amendment. 

John J. Crittenden, Moderate Democrat and Slaveholder, Authors the Plan

The Crittenden Compromise was the creation of John J. Crittenden, a 74-year-old slaveholder and Democratic senator from Kentucky, who emerged with a compromise that he claimed would end the arguments over slavery and avert a Civil War between the North and South. It would also guarantee the existence of slavery in the slave states by preserving it in the U.S. Constitution.

According to Goodheart, the director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, Crittenden was a leading moderate voice and most senior member in the Senate who “hated neither slaveholders nor [slavery-opposing] Republicans.” 

One Baltimore minister penned his hopes on Crittenden to save the country. “The eyes of all good men in all sections are turned toward you,” wrote the minister in a letter to Crittenden. “The prospect looks dark, but the God of our Fathers will I believe in yet in some way bring deliverance.”

The 6 Articles of the Crittenden Compromise

On December 18, 1860, Crittenden proposed six constitutional amendments to the full senate. In the spirit of compromise that had become his forte in a 40-year career in Washington, Crittenden gave his Senate colleagues a civic lessons as he tried to appease their interests. 

“All the wrong is never one side, or all the right on the other,” he said. “Right and wrong, in this world, and in all such controversies, are mingled together ... But in the progress of party, we now come to the point where party ceases to deserve consideration, and the preservation of the Union demands our highest and greatest exertions.”

The first amendment of the Crittenden Compromise restored the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state to keep the balance of power equal between free and slaveholding states. This compromise had also banned slavery in all the former Louisiana Purchase territories north of a line drawn at 36 degrees 30 latitude, which ran along Missouri’s southern border. (It had since been repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act.)

Map illustrates the status of slavery in the United States in 1821. Published in 1920, it shows Free States (brown), states undergoing gradual abolition (light brown), free states via the Ordinance of 1787 (dotted), free states via the Missouri Compromise (striped), and slave-holding states (yellow).
Map illustrates the status of slavery in the United States in 1821. (Interim Archives/Getty Images)
Map illustrates the status of slavery in the United States in 1821. Published in 1920, it shows Free States (brown), states undergoing gradual abolition (light brown), free states via the Ordinance of 1787 (dotted), free states via the Missouri Compromise (striped), and slave-holding states (yellow).

Article II barred Congress from abolishing slavery in places under its exclusive jurisdiction within a slave state. Article III protected slavery in the District of Columbia. Article IV forbade Congress from prohibiting the transport of slaves from one state to another. Article V provided that the federal government would pay full compensation to slaveholders for slaves that they had not been able to recover because of the help of abolitionists. The sixth amendment blocked all the preceding amendments from being altered and denied Congress the right to ever abolish slavery in states where it existed.

Crittenden Argued It Was a Good Deal for the Republicans

According to William J. Cooper, a former Louisiana State University professor and the author of We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861, Crittenden believed that his plan was a wise policy for the Republicans, who opposed the expansion of slavery. 

“For Crittenden solving this problem was simple—a compromise, extending the Missouri Line westward to California,” wrote Cooper in We Have the War Upon Us. “This was more than an equitable division, he informed Republicans, for it gave the North fully two-thirds of the National domain.”

Lincoln Opposes the Crittenden Compromise

photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th president of the United States in November 1860. He opposed any compromise plan that would extend slavery, including the Crittenden Compromise.

But there was at least one key Republican who was not buying into the plan. As the President-elect and leader of the Republican Party, Lincoln was the most vocal and influential opponent of the Crittenden Compromise. Before Crittenden had even presented his plan to Congress, Lincoln was already telling fellow Republican Illinois Congressman William Kellogg to “entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery.”

To evaluate the Crittenden Compromise and other plans to reach a compromise agreement, the Committee of Thirteen met for the first time on December 18, 1860. This group, which was composed of seven Democrats, five Republicans and one Constitutional Unionist, passed a motion by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis that a proposal could not be adopted unless it was supported by a majority of Republicans and Democrats. According to Richard Striner, the author of Summoned to Glory: The Audacious Life of Abraham Lincoln and three other books on Lincoln, the 16th president’s influence with key Republicans was instrumental in the failure of Crittenden’s proposal.

“Thanks in large part to Lincoln’s goading, all five Republicans on the committee opposed it,” Striner wrote in the New York Times in 2010. “In turn two southern members on the committee, Robert Toombs and Jefferson Davis, voted against it on the grounds that such unified Republican opposition made the compromise worthless.”

On January 16, 1861, the Crittenden Compromise was voted down in the Senate with all 25 Republicans voting no to 23 yes votes. A month after the Crittenden Compromise failed in the Senate, a slightly modified version of the plan was debated at the Peace Conference, where delegates from 21 of the 34 states met in Washington, but it also didn’t gain the support of Republicans because it didn’t limit the expansion of slavery in the territories.

“The entire existence of the Republican Party was predicated on a commitment to containing slavery within its present bounds,” Goodheart wrote in 1861. “Were its leaders to abrogate this fundamental principle, at the very hour of their electoral triumph? The cartloads of petitions in support of compromise must be weighed against the grassroots fervor of the recent campaign: nearly two million Americans in the North had voted for Lincoln, despite all the Southern warnings that his victory would mean disunion.” The second Crittenden compromise was rejected in the senate 28-7 and never made it to the House of Representatives.

Crittenden Supports the Union During the Civil War

After the failure of his plan and the start of the Civil War, Crittenden left the Senate and returned to Kentucky in an effort to save Kentucky for the Union. In May 1861, he became the chairman of the Border State Convention, a group of delegates from Kentucky and Missouri who met in Frankfort to ask the Southern states to reconsider their position on secession. After first pushing Kentucky to stay neutral in the war, Crittenden became a supporter of the Union. His own family was split over the war. Two of his sons became generals in opposing armies.

Two years into the Civil War, Crittenden died in 1863 of failing health at the age of 77 as he was preparing for reelection to Congress. He was not a supporter of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation nor the use of Black men as Union troops. In July 1861, he introduced resolutions that the purpose of the war was not for “overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those states,” but rather to “defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union.”

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