The Crittenden-Johnson Resolution

Senator John J. Crittenden had contemplated retirement after his plan to preserve the Union failed to pass in Congress. He instead agreed to become a candidate for an election of Kentucky members to the U.S. House of Representatives. He won a seat, and when Congress met in special session in July, Crittenden moved from the Senate to the House.

Following the Federal defeat at Bull Run, Crittenden introduced a resolution to define the Federal purpose for fighting the war. He also wanted to head off attempts by Radical Republicans to expand the scope of the war by attacking slavery. The measure consisted of two parts, or branches, which were voted on separately. The first branch blamed the southern states for the war:

“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 declared that the Federal war effort should not disrupt the southern way of life:

“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.”

This was consistent with President Abraham Lincoln’s pledge in his inaugural address to preserve the Union but not to interfere with slavery where it already existed. Members approved this branch by a vote of 119-2, with John F. Potter of Wisconsin and Albert G. Riddle of Ohio dissenting. Many Radicals approved of the first branch but opposed the second, and therefore abstained from voting on either. Radical George Julian of Indiana wrote, “To thorough going anti-slavery men this seemed like an apology for the war, and a most ill-timed revival of the policy of conciliation.” Riddle, an abolitionist, made it clear that opposed this resolution because he wanted a war to destroy slavery: “I mean to make a conquest of it; to beat it to extinction under the iron hooves of our war horses.”

In the Senate, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee introduced a similar resolution. Johnson was the only senator from a southern state who did not resign his seat when his state seceded. He firmly supported the Union and blamed the war on the southern aristocracy. Johnson’s measure was very similar to Crittenden’s except that there was no division between two “branches.” The Senate approved, 30 to 5. Like in the House, many Radical senators abstained from voting. John C. Breckinridge, the former U.S. vice president from Kentucky, argued that the resolution was disingenuous because the South had not forced war on anybody; he later resigned to become a Confederate general.

The resolution highlighted the predominantly northern view that the southern states had launched an unlawful rebellion against the national government, 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.

Radicals, however, would continue urging a war on slavery, especially after the Bull Run defeat. Senator Charles Sumner predicted that while the result was disastrous in the short term, the battle would in the long term do “much for the slave.” Anti-war Democrats and Confederate sympathizers argued that the resolution was illogical because it promised to restore sovereignty to the southern states while violating their sovereignty by forcing them to return to the Union.

Despite objections from the minority, the Crittenden-Johnson resolution became the only congressional declaration explaining why the Federal government was waging war against the South. As such, it served as the only legal basis besides Lincoln’s executive actions, which some argued were an unconstitutional attempt to usurp the right of Congress to make laws.


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