In December 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden (1787-1863) introduced legislation aimed at resolving the looming secession crisis in the Deep South. The “Crittenden Compromise,” as it became known, included six proposed constitutional amendments and four proposed Congressional resolutions that Crittenden hoped would appease Southern states and help the nation avoid civil war. The compromise would have guaranteed the permanent existence of slavery in the slave states by reestablishing the free-slave demarcation line drawn by the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Though Crittenden’s plan drew support from Southern leaders, its rejection by many Northern Republicans, including President-elect Abraham Lincoln, led to its ultimate failure.

This was an unsuccessful effort to avert the Civil War during the winter of 1860-1861. Senator John J. Crittenden, a Kentucky Whig and disciple of Henry Clay, proposed six constitutional amendments and four resolutions. The amendments made major concessions to southern concerns. They forbade the abolition of slavery on federal land in slaveholding states, compensated owners of runaway slaves, and restored the Missouri Compromise line of 36 degree 30′, which had been repealed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One amendment guaranteed that future constitutional amendments could not change the other five amendments or the three-fifths and fugitive slave clauses of the Constitution. Crittenden’s proposals also called for the repeal of northern personal liberty laws. Aware of congressional divisions, Crittenden urged that his plan be submitted to a nationwide vote.

Did you know? One of the most controversial aspects of the Critten Compromise was that it stipulated that the bills could never be changed or amended.

Despite considerable popular support for Crittenden’s compromise, Congress failed to enact it. Although incoming secretary of state William Seward, viewed by southerners as a radical on slavery, backed the plan, most Republicans agreed with President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who opposed it.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.