Three days after the Senate had tabled Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden’s compromise measure, he reported that the Committee of Thirteen, formed to reconcile North and South, had defeated the plan by a vote of 7 to 6. All five Republican committee members, acting on advice from President-elect Abraham Lincoln, refused to make any deal that might expand slavery past 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. The three remaining southern Democrats and all three northern Democrats voted in favor.
Thus, the plan with the best chance of being enacted never even made it out of committee. Crittenden strongly advised that Congress reconsider, and when that did not work, he urged submitting the plan to a popular vote. In a speech on the Senate floor, Crittenden said:
“It will be an open shame to the Senate of the United States, an open shame to the Government of the United States, if, under such circumstances as now exist, this great Government is allowed to fall in ruins… Peace and harmony and union in a great nation were never purchased at so cheap a rate as we now have it in our power to do… The people will give good advice as to how this matter ought to be settled… Balance the consequences of a civil war and the consequences of your now agreeing to the stipulated terms of peace here, and see how they compare with one another.”
Considering all the letters and petitions pouring into Washington pleading for lawmakers to preserve the Union, Crittenden’s measure would have likely been overwhelmingly approved by the people. Such a vote would have no basis in law, but it might have pushed members of Congress into giving the plan a second look. But they refused to put the question to a vote.
Committee member 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 this exact proposal 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 United States. 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 by accusing Douglas of cowardice for favoring conciliation over military action. Congressman Elihu B. 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 lean even farther toward secession.
On the 7th, Crittenden issued another plea for conciliation. Though he voiced opposition to secession, he acknowledged that it “is not forbidden by the Constitution, nor does it conflict with any principles of the Constitution… 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 all citizens had an equal right to bring their property (including slaves) into U.S. territories, a point that Republicans strongly opposed.
The next day, President James Buchanan submitted a message to Congress. He reviewed what had happened since his annual message in December, and he reiterated his assertion “that no State has a right by its own to secede from the Union or throw off its federal obligations at pleasure.” He acknowledged he had “no right to make aggressive war upon any State,” but “the right and the duty to use military force defensive against those who resist the Federal officers in the execution of their legal functions and against those who assail the property of the Federal Government is clear and undeniable.”
The president called on Congress to act because it was “the only human tribunal under Providence possessing the power to meet the existing emergency.” He expressed support for Crittenden’s plan: “Let the question be transferred from political assemblies to the ballot box… let the trial be made before we plunge into armed conflict upon the mere assumption that there is no other alternative… A common ground on which conciliation and harmony can be produced is surely not unattainable.”
Buchanan then stated that the seizure of Federal property by various southern states “has been purely aggressive,” even though at “the beginning of these unhappy troubles I determined that no act of mine should increase the excitement in either section of the country.” This was why “I refrained even from sending reenforcements to Major Anderson, who commanded the forts in Charleston Harbor, until an absolute necessity for doing so should make itself apparent… No necessity for these reenforcements seemed to exist.”
With his message, Buchanan included the first letter written by the South Carolina commissioners to him and his answer. He did not include the commissioners’ response because he had refused to endorse it. Jefferson Davis submitted the commissioners’ reply, which was entered into the Senate journal.
A week later, 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. The Republicans replied by introducing an alternate resolution on the 16th. The public referendum was rejected because Crittenden’s plan contained proposed constitutional amendments, and the Constitution already contained a process for proposing and ratifying 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. Crittenden’s compromise measure was finally put to a full Senate vote, and it failed 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 had no serious intent to make any compromises to save the Union.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Kindle Edition 2008, 1889.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- MillerCenter.org: Presidential Speeches, President James Buchanan of January 8, 1861.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.