The 1860 Crittenden Compromise Aimed to Stop Civil War while Preserving Slavery

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Civil War, Crittenden Compromise

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. 

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.”

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.”


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