December 18, 1860
In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in November of 1860, Southern senators began leaving the Senate to attend secession conventions, while Northern senators called for military preparedness. The nation faced its greatest crisis. Was a peaceful solution to this crisis still possible? Could Congress take action to avert civil war? One Kentucky senator proposed just such a plan.
John Crittenden’s political career began in 1811, when he was elected to Kentucky’s state legislature. Three years later, state officials offered him a seat in the U.S. Senate, but the 27-year-old Kentuckian was too young to serve. In 1817 a Senate vacancy prompted state officials to renew that offer. Over the next five decades, Crittenden served four separate terms in the Senate, part of a 40-year career in public service. During the intervals when he was not in elected office, Crittenden established a reputation as one of the nation’s most talented lawyers. In all of these endeavors, Crittenden often served as conciliator, finding middle ground between competing factions.
By December of 1860, the 74-year-old Crittenden was in his last term in the Senate. As the nation edged closer to the precipice of war, Crittenden’s allies turned to him to find a peaceful way to preserve the Union. “The best services of your best day will be needed as pacificator,” insisted one colleague. On December 18, Crittenden submitted his peace proposal to the Senate. “History is to record us,” he warned. “Is it to record that when the destruction of the Union was imminent . . . , we stood quarreling?”
Crittenden argued that any successful proposal had to go beyond legislative action to offer a more permanent solution, so he proposed a collection of constitutional amendments. At the heart of the plan was an amendment to extend to the Pacific the line drawn by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, prohibiting slavery north of the 36°30' parallel—a line made defunct by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. The 1820 compromise sanctioned the continuation of slavery in the South, he admitted, but it also preserved the Union. Today, such a compromise over slavery seems unforgivable, but during Crittenden’s lifetime the legality of slavery was still debated. For decades, contentious battles over this issue had been mitigated by legislative compromise. As late as December 1860 Crittenden hoped that one more compromise would keep the peace.
Referred to a special committee, the proposal had the backing of some powerful senators, including William Seward of New York, and gained support from the public who petitioned Congress to adopt the plan, but Radical Republicans like Iowa senator James Grimes, unwilling to accept Crittenden’s solution, rejected it. This peace proposal—like many others—died in committee. Crittenden left the Senate in March of 1861 and returned to Kentucky, where his persuasive arguments against secession kept that critical border state in the Union.
John Crittenden is largely forgotten today, often overshadowed by his more famous colleague, Henry Clay. The Crittenden Compromise is often relegated to the footnotes of history textbooks. Yet, both the man and the proposal are worth remembering. Crittenden’s Compromise serves as a reminder that, even after secession began, war was not considered to be inevitable, abolition was anything but certain, and compromise—even over the most disputed issues—was still considered a viable option.