After Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election of 1860, 11 southern states separated from the Union. Slavery and state rights had been at the center of the election, and Lincoln vowed during his campaign not to restrict slavery where it already existed, but to limit its expansion to Western territories.
A series of concessions to the southern slave states, from the Missouri Compromise in 1820 to the Kansas-Nebraska Law in 1854, had helped manage the sectoral crisis and maintain the Union. Some lawmakers saw the prospect of another compromise as the nation’s best bet for survival
“Word [Union] meant a nation united by compromise, preserved through the careful balancing of the interests of South and North, of slavery and freedom, ”Adam Goodheart wrote in 1861: The awakening of the civil war. “Now, following the election of Lincoln, the nation’s only hope was to muster another new compromise, by which to continue to house both liberty and servitude under the same threadbare tent.”
Between Lincoln’s election and the onset of the Civil War when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, there were three major attempts to avoid secession and the Civil War: the Crittenden Compromise, the Washington Peace Convention and Corwin’s Amendment.
John J. Crittenden, moderate democrat and slaveholder, authors of the plan
Crittenden’s Compromise was the creation of John J. Crittenden, a 74-year-old slaver and Democratic Senator from Kentucky, who emerged with a compromise he said would end arguments over slavery and avoid a civil war between the North and South. It would also ensure the existence of slavery in slave states by preserving it in the US Constitution.
According to Goodheart, director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, Crittenden was a leading moderate voice and the longest-serving member of the Senate who “neither hated slave owners nor [slavery-opposing] Republicans.
A Baltimore minister put his hopes on Crittenden to save the country. “The eyes of all good men in all sections are on you,” the minister wrote in a letter to Crittenden. “The prospect looks grim, but the God of our Fathers in whom I will still believe will somehow bring deliverance.”
The 6 articles of the Crittenden compromise
On December 18, 1860, Crittenden proposed six constitutional amendments to the Senate as a whole. In the spirit of compromise that had become his strength during a 40-year career in Washington, Crittenden gave his colleagues in the Senate a lesson in good citizenship as he tried to appease their interests.
“All the bad is never on one side, or all the good on the other,” he said. “Good and evil, in this world, and in all these controversies, are mixed … and the greatest efforts.
The First Amendment to Crittenden’s Compromise restored the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state to maintain the balance of power between the free and slave states. This compromise also banned slavery in all of Louisiana’s former purchasing territories north of a line drawn at 36 degrees 30 latitude, which ran along the southern border of Missouri. (It had since been repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska law.)
Article II prohibited 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 prohibits Congress from prohibiting the transport of slaves from one state to another. Article V provided that the federal government would pay full compensation to slave owners for slaves they had not been able to recover because of the help of the abolitionists. The Sixth Amendment barred all previous Amendments from being amended and denied Congress the right to abolish slavery in states where it existed.
Crittenden argued it was a good deal for Republicans
According to William J. Cooper, a former professor at Louisiana State University and author of We have the war against us: the start of the civil war, November 1860-April 1861, Crittenden believed his plan was wise policy for Republicans, who opposed the expansion of slavery.
“For Crittenden, solving this problem was simple – a compromise, extending the line from the Missouri west to California,” Cooper wrote in We have the war against us. “It was more than a fair share, he informed the Republicans, because it gave the North two-thirds of the national domain.”
Lincoln opposes Crittenden’s compromise
But there was at least one key Republican who didn’t buy into the plan. As president-elect and leader of the Republican Party, Lincoln was the most vocal and influential opponent of the Crittenden compromise. Even before Crittenden presented his plan to Congress, Lincoln was already telling his Illinois Republican colleague William Kellogg to “not accept any compromise proposal regarding the extension of slavery.”
To assess Crittenden’s compromise and other plans for reaching a compromise deal, the Committee of Thirteen first met on December 18, 1860. This group, which consisted of seven Democrats, five Republicans and one Constitutional Unionist, passed a motion by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis that a proposal could only be passed if it was supported by a majority of Republicans and Democrats. According to Richard Striner, the author of Summoned to Glory: The Bold Life of Abraham Lincoln and three other books on Lincoln, the 16the the president’s influence over senior Republicans contributed to the failure of Crittenden’s proposal.
“Thanks in large part to Lincoln’s goad, the five Republicans on the committee opposed it,” Striner wrote in the New York Times in 2010. “In turn, two southern members of the committee, Robert Toombs and Jefferson Davis, voted against. on the grounds that such unified Republican opposition rendered the compromise worthless.
On January 16, 1861, Crittenden’s compromise was rejected in the Senate, with the 25 Republicans voting no against 23 yes. A month after Crittenden’s failed Senate compromise, 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 failed more won the support of Republicans because it did not limit the expansion of slavery in the territories.
“The entire existence of the Republican Party was based on a commitment to contain slavery within its present limits,” Goodheart wrote in 1861. “Should its leaders abrogate this fundamental principle, at the very hour of their electoral triumph? Petition carts for compromise must be weighed against the popular fervor of the recent campaign: nearly two million North Americans voted for Lincoln, despite all warnings from the South that his victory would mean disunity. Crittenden’s second compromise was rejected in Senate 28-7 and never reached the House of Representatives.
Crittenden supports the Union during the civil war
After his plan failed and the Civil War began, Crittenden left the Senate and returned to Kentucky in an effort to save Kentucky for the Union. In May 1861 he became president of the Border State Convention, a group of delegates from Kentucky and Missouri who met in Frankfurt to call on the southern states to reconsider their position on secession. After initially pushing Kentucky to remain neutral in the war, Crittenden became a supporter of the Union. His own family was divided during the war. Two of his sons became generals in the opposing armies.
Two years after the outbreak of the Civil War, Crittenden died in 1863 of failing health at the age of 77 as he prepared for re-election to Congress. He was not a supporter of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or of the use of black men as Union troops. In July 1861 he introduced resolutions that the aim of the war was not to “overthrow or interfere with the rights or established institutions of these states”, but rather to “defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union ”.