Compromise Goes up the Spout

As the year reached its end, the Senate Committee of Thirteen continued wrangling over the complex compromise plan introduced by Kentuckian John J. Crittenden. Most Democrats supported the plan, while Republicans generally opposed it. A small minority of Republicans urged passage of this plan if only because a dissolution of the Union would trigger a Wall Street panic. But Abraham Lincoln used his influence like no other president-elect up to that time to keep most of his fellow Republicans firmly opposed to the “Crittenden compromise.”

The Republicans’ main objection to Crittenden’s plan was that it left open the possibility that all territory south of the 36-degree, 30-minute line from Missouri to the Pacific could potentially become slave territory. If southern expansionists had their way, land south of 36-30 might someday include Mexico, the Caribbean, or even South America. Multiple slave states could be carved out of this land, with congressional representation that would consistently outvote the North. To Republicans like Lincoln, this “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.”

Committee member Robert Toombs of Georgia submitted a counterplan whereby “no law shall ever be passed by Congress in relation to the institution of African slavery in the States or Territories, or elsewhere in the United States, without the consent of a majority of the senators and representatives of the slaveholding States.” This would essentially codify what the Supreme Court had already ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which was that Congress had no right to regulate slavery in any state or territory. Toombs also proposed stricter enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and stricter punishment for involvement in slave uprisings.

Republicans were willing to go along with the stricter enforcement and punishment parts of Toombs’s plan, but, following Lincoln’s lead, they refused to compromise in any way on expanding slavery into the western territories. When it became clear that Toombs’s plan would be rejected, he wrote to the people of his home state that Congress was now “controlled by the Black Republicans, your enemies, who only seek to amuse you with delusive hope until your election (of delegates to the secession convention), that you may defeat the friends of secession… all further looking to the North for security for your constitutional rights in the Union ought to be instantly abandoned.” Toombs urged voters to elect delegates who would vote for Georgia to secede: “Such a voice will be your best guarantee for liberty, security, tranquility and glory.”

The day after Toombs sent his message to Georgia, Republican committee member William H. Seward of New York proposed a compromise measure of his own: a constitutional amendment prohibiting Congress from interfering with slavery in states where it already existed, providing jury trials to fugitive slaves, and mandating that states revise any personal liberty laws that conflicted with the U.S. Constitution. But with Republicans still refusing to bend on the expansion question, these proposals gained little support.

It soon became evident that hope for a negotiated settlement was waning. A newspaper reported on the 28th: “Compromise has gone up the spout, and the compromisers go about the street like mourners.” Prominent newspaperman Duff Green, who was related to Lincoln by marriage, urged the president-elect to issue an announcement in support of Crittenden’s amendments. Lincoln responded through his close ally in the Senate, Lyman Trumbull.

Lincoln wrote that if the amendments became law, he would not only support them, but he would support the “right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively.” Lincoln then went even further: “I denounce the lawless invasion, by armed force, of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter under what pretext, as the gravest of crimes.” This seemed to contradict earlier statements he made supporting the use of force to reclaim Federal property in the South, particularly the forts in Charleston Harbor, if necessary.

Lincoln asked Trumbull that “if, on consultation with our dearest friends, you conclude that it may do us harm, do not deliver it.” Trumbull decided it would do them harm and did not forward the letter to Green. When Green realized he would get no public response from the president-elect, he wrote him again: “I regret your unwillingness to recommend an amendment to the constitution which will arrest the progress of secession.”

Meanwhile in the House of Representatives, the Committee of Thirty-three was trying to come up with a compromise plan of its own. The committee approved a proposal admitting the New Mexico Territory (present-day New Mexico and Arizona) into the Union as a slave state. The people of the territory had approved a pro-slave constitution, even though no more than a dozen slaves lived in the vast region.

Republican Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts convinced nine of the committee’s 15 Republicans to support the bill, even though it violated their party’s pledge to oppose slavery’s expansion. Their support was based on the general understanding that slavery could not flourish in New Mexico’s desert climate, and therefore the state would eventually become free. As such, congressmen from the Lower South opposed the measure while Upper South members supported it. The bill was ultimately defeated, thus dealing another blow to compromise.

On New Year’s Eve, the Committee of Thirteen reported that it could not reach any consensus on Crittenden’s compromise. The northern Democrats and border state committee members supported the plan, but the two southern Democrats opposed anything besides a firm understanding that slavery would be allowed anywhere south of the 36-30 line. Conversely, the five Republicans opposed the measure based on Lincoln’s refusal to compromise on anything that would allow slavery to spread beyond where it already existed. Other proposals, such as Toombs’s and Seward’s, were never seriously considered.

Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana represented the southern faction who opposed the compromise because it conceded too much to the North. 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!”

The year thus ended dismally, with little hope for reconciliation between North and South.


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