December 18, 1860 – Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky introduced a complex set of amendments and resolutions designed to end the sectional crisis and ensure the Union remained intact.
The second session of the Thirty-sixth U.S. Congress assembled on December 3, just as southern states contemplated seceding from the Union. Much of the reason for seceding was the fact that Republicans controlled Congress for the first time; previously they had only been a minority party and they now remained a dysfunctional combination of former Whigs, Democrats, and Know-Nothings. This did much to hamper effective leadership during this crucial time.
In the House of Representatives, congressmen appointed 33 members, one from each state, to a special committee to consider “the present perilous condition of the country” and recommend possible solutions to the sectional crisis. By December 12th, they had received some 23 bills and resolutions attempting to resolve the dispute. Committee members themselves came up with over 30 proposals, but none proved practical enough to garner majority support.
The next day, two-thirds of the U.S. representation of seven southern states (seven senators and 23 congressmen) signed a manifesto to their constituents. The manifesto declared: “The argument is exhausted. All hope of relief in the Union, through the agency of committees, Congressional legislation, or constitutional amendments, is extinguished… The honor, safety, and independence of the Southern people are to be found in a Southern Confederacy.” This came before any congressional efforts for compromise had been fully considered or acted upon.
On the 18th, Vice President John C. Breckinridge appointed a “Committee of Thirteen” in the U.S. Senate to “inquire into the present condition of the country, and report by bill or otherwise.” The committee consisted of five southern Democrats (John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Lazarus W. Powell of Kentucky, William H. Seward of New York, Robert Toombs of Georgia), three northern Democrats (William Bigler of Pennsylvania, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Henry M. Rice of Minnesota), and five Republicans (Jacob Collamer of Vermont, James Doolittle of Wisconsin, James Grimes of Iowa, William H. Seward of New York, Benjamin Wade of Ohio).
This special committee was intended to review all the compromise proposals. Members resolved that no resolution would be adopted unless a majority of each division (southern Democrat, northern Democrat, and Republican) approved. The southerners expressed willingness to approve any resolution that would guarantee their future security in the Union.
Committee member Crittenden introduced his compromise proposal to his fellow members. This consisted of six constitutional amendments and four congressional resolutions:
- Amendment 1: Slavery would be prohibited in any U.S. territory north of the 36-30 parallel, and “hereby recognized” south of 36-30. Slavery would be “protected by all the departments of the territorial government during its continuance.” States south of 36-30 would be admitted into the Union with or without slavery, depending on their whether it was allowed in their constitutions.
- Amendment 2: Congress could not abolish slavery in Federal areas within a state, such as a military post.
- Amendment 3: Slavery could not be abolished in the District of Columbia without consent of the District residents; slaveholders who did not consent would be compensated for their loss.
- Amendment 4: Congress could not interfere with interstate slave trading.
- Amendment 5: Congress would compensate slaveholders who lost fugitive slaves. Congress could sue counties that obstructed fugitive slave laws, and counties could in turn sue individuals obstructing those laws.
- Amendment 6: No future constitutional amendment could allow Congress to interfere with slavery in any state where it already existed.
- Resolution 1: Fugitive slave laws were constitutional and should be enforced.
- Resolution 2: All state laws that obstructed fugitive slave laws were unconstitutional and should be repealed.
- Resolution 3: The fugitive slave law should offer equal compensation for returning or releasing alleged fugitives.
- Resolution 4: Laws banning the African slave trade should be enforced.
Many committee members urged passage of this “Crittenden Compromise.” Some Republicans, fearing a Wall Street collapse, urged fellow party members to support it, including party boss (and Seward backer) Thurlow Weed. However, President-elect Abraham Lincoln remained firmly opposed to the measure.
The following week, Seward proposed a measure similar to Crittenden’s compromise that included a constitutional amendment prohibiting Congress from interfering with slavery in states where it already existed, providing jury trials to fugitive slaves, and revising state constitutions that contained personal liberty laws conflicting with the U.S. Constitution.
Meanwhile, legislators looked to offer up new land to the slave states as a compromise. Stephen A. Douglas wrote to Congressman Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia offering support for annexing Mexico as a slave territory to avoid secession. And on the 29th, the House Committee of Thirty-three proposed granting statehood to the New Mexico Territory (present-day New Mexico and Arizona).
Most Republicans supported the New Mexico proposal, even though it violated their party platform by expanding slavery (New Mexico had a pro-slave provision). However, most conceded that slavery would not flourish in that territory’s climate and the final result would be adding another free state to the Union. As such, congressmen from the Lower South opposed the measure while Upper South members supported it. Republican Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts convinced nine of the committee’s 15 Republicans to support the bill, but it was ultimately defeated.
On New Year’s Eve, the Committee of Thirteen reported that it could not reach any compromise agreement on Crittenden’s compromise, Seward’s proposal, or any of the other dozens of bills and proposals offered. The northern and southern Democrats had joined forces to support several compromise measures, but the Republicans, led by President-elect Lincoln behind the scenes, held firm in opposition because none of them barred expanding slavery into the territories. Lincoln said that the compromises “would amount to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe, and state owning a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego (on the southern tip of South America).
Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana represented the southern faction who opposed the compromises because they conceded too much to the northern states. Amid loud cheering and shouting from the Senate galleries, Benjamin declared:
“You do not propose to enter into our States, you say, and what do we complain of? You do not pretend to enter into our States to kill or destroy our institutions by force. Oh, no… You propose simply to close us in an embrace that will suffocate us… The day for adjustment has passed… We desire, we beseech you, let this parting be in peace… you can never subjugate us; you can never convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power; and you never, never can degrade them to the level of an inferior and servile race. Never! Never!”
Thus, the year ended with little hope for reconciliation between North and South.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 1218-29
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 4-5
- Kagan, Dangerous Nation, p. 243
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 10-13, 15, 17-18
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 252, 254
- Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael, A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 298-99
- Wikipedia: Crittenden Compromise; Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War