The Crittenden-Johnson Resolution

July 25, 1861 – Congress approved a resolution defining the Federal government’s goals in the war.

The resolution had been initiated in the House of Representatives on July 22 by Congressman John J. Crittenden of Kentucky to define why the war was being prosecuted. The resolution consisted of two parts, or branches, which members voted on separately. The first branch stated:

“Resolved by the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States, That the present deplorable civil war has been forced upon the country by the disunionists of the southern States now in revolt against the constitutional government, and in arms around the capital.”

Members approved this branch by a vote of 121-2. The dissenters, Henry C. Burnett of Kentucky and John W. Reid of Missouri, later joined the Confederacy.

The second branch stated:

“That in this national emergency, Congress, banishing all feelings of mere passion or resentment, will recollect only its duty to the whole country; that this war is not waged on their part in any spirit of oppression, or for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, or purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those (Confederate) States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired; and that as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.”

Members approved this branch by a vote of 119-2, with John F. Potter of Wisconsin and Albert G. Riddle of Ohio dissenting. This reflected President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural pledge to preserve the Union while not interfering with slavery where it already existed. Several Radical Republicans objected to the clause pledging non-interference with Confederate institutions (i.e., slavery) and many, such as Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, abstained from voting on the measure.

Three days later, the Senate approved the Crittenden Resolution, which became known as the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution with the sponsorship of Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. The senators removed the House’s division between the resolution’s two “branches” and approved the measure by a vote of 30-5.

John J. Crittenden and Andrew Johnson | Image Credit:
John J. Crittenden and Andrew Johnson | Image Credit:

The resolution sought to highlight the view of most Federal authorities that the southern states had launched an unlawful rebellion, and that the conflict would end as soon as those states stopped rebelling. It also served to unite northern political parties by assuring Democrats that Lincoln and the Republicans would not interfere with slavery while waging war.

Several Radical Republicans approved this resolution, even though they went against its rhetoric by working to use the war to abolish slavery. Three Radical senators voted against the resolution, and 24 Radicals in the House and Senate abstained. Anti-war Democrats and Confederate sympathizers argued that the resolution was illogical because it promised to restore sovereignty to the states while violating that sovereignty by invading those same states.

Nevertheless, this became the only congressional declaration explaining why the Federal government was fighting the war. As such, it served as the only legal basis besides Lincoln’s executive actions, which political opponents argued infringed on the right of Congress, not the president, to make law.



Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15063; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 60-61; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6455; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 50; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 100-01; 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. 312; Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael, A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 315; 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), Q361; Wikipedia: Crittenden Johnson Resolution; Woods, Jr., Thomas E., The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004), p. 65-66


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