January 3, 1861 – Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky took the unprecedented step of urging his colleagues to submit his comprehensive plan to preserve the Union to a popular vote.
Three days after the Senate had tabled Crittenden’s compromise measure, Crittenden reported that the Committee of Thirteen, formed to reconcile North and South, had defeated the plan 7 to 6. Acting on the advice of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, all five Republican committeemen refused to accept any compromise that included extending slavery beyond where it already existed. Two southern Democrats, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Robert Toombs of Georgia, also rejected Crittenden’s compromise on the grounds that it would be worthless without bipartisan support.
Fellow committeeman Stephen A. Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, delivered a speech on the 3rd criticizing both Republicans and southern Democrats. Douglas accused southerners of “rushing madly into (secession), as a refuge from apprehended dangers which may not exist.” Douglas then challenged Republicans to come up with an idea of their own for preserving the Union since they had rejected all ideas proposed by others. Douglas accused Republicans of gaining “partisan capital out of a question involving the peace and safety of the Union.”
Douglas also mocked the Republicans for rejecting Crittenden’s proposal to extend the 36-30 boundary line to the Pacific after they had supported doing this when the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in 1854: “You have sung paeans enough in its praise, and uttered imprecations and curses enough on my head for its repeal, one would think, to justify you now in claiming a triumph by its establishment.”
While condemning the “dangerous and revolutionary opinions” of President-elect Lincoln, Douglas also condemned secession by declaring that the Federal government had the right “to use all the power and force necessary to regain possession” of South Carolina. Douglas declared, “There can be no Government without coercion. Coercion, is the vital principle upon which all Government rests.”
Douglas reiterated support for Crittenden’s compromise, with amendments to prohibit blacks from voting or holding public office, and to federally fund colonizing (i.e., deporting) blacks outside the U.S. Crittenden expressed support for Douglas’s amendments, then asked the Senate to hold a simple majority vote on whether to submit the compromise measure to a national referendum.
Republicans reacted to Douglas’s speech by accusing him of cowardice for favoring conciliation over military action. Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois wrote to Lincoln that Douglas’s speech “was utterly infamous and damnable, the crowning atrocity of his life.” Republicans also refused to sacrifice anything within their party platform to stop secession. This hard stand emboldened southern states to give even greater consideration to secession.
On the 7th, Crittenden issued another plea for conciliation. He voiced opposition to secession and urged support for his proposed compromise: “I am for the Union; but, my friends, I must be also for the equal rights of my State under this great Constitution and in this great Union.” Acknowledging wrong on both sides, Crittenden asserted that slaveholders had as much right to bring their slaves into the territories as those entering the territories without slaves.
The next day, President James Buchanan submitted a message to Congress asking to “pause at this momentous point and afford the people, both North and South, an opportunity for reflection…” He reaffirmed that neither he nor Congress could wage war against a state, but if seceded states refused to allow Federal authorities to collect Federal taxes, those states could be forced to comply. To avoid such a confrontation, Buchanan urged, “Let the question be transferred from the political assemblies to the ballot box” by submitting Crittenden’s compromise to a public vote.
The following week, Democratic Senator William Bigler of Pennsylvania backed Buchanan’s request by introducing legislation that would submit the compromise plan to a popular referendum. Republicans strongly opposed bringing the issue to the people, prompting Douglas to demand that they announce their party’s intentions immediately.
Republicans introduced an alternate resolution on the 16th. This rejected a public referendum because Crittenden’s plan proposed constitutional amendments, and the Constitution already contained a process for proposing amendments; any deviation from that process would be “dangerous, illusory, and destructive.” The resolution also declared that the Constitution “needs to be obeyed rather than amended.”
Republicans did not expect their resolution to pass, but it did because of six Democratic abstentions. Moreover, the full Senate rejected Crittenden’s compromise measure, 25 to 23. All 25 Republicans rejected the plan, and 14 senators from states that had either seceded or were considering secession did not vote.
These votes killed Crittenden’s compromise once and for all. Many politicians in both North and South believed that it offered too little, too late. But to southerners, this proved that Republicans would refuse any other compromise ideas. By mid-January, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama had already seceded, and more states would soon follow.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 1229-40
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 21-23, 27
- 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. 253-54
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 43
- White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161