Saturday, December 18, 2010

Crittenden Compromise

150 years ago today John Crittenden introduced a bill into the Senate which was intended to stop the Union from collapsing. Crittenden was an influential senator from Kentucky who had served as attorney general and governor of Kentucky. His idea was to add six amendments to the Constitution and enact several laws in Congress.
John J. Crittenden

1st Amendment

The first suggested amendment declared that the line between the slave and free state would be 36 degrees, 30 minutes, the same as in the Missouri Compromise which was established in 1820 but later overturned. Slavery would be prohibited north of the line and allowed below, whether as a territory or state. This argument had gone back many years and was complicated by the fact that if a state was let in it would swing the balance toward the side it came in on, slave or free.

The green line marks the proposed barrier between free and slave states

2nd and 3rd Amendments

In these articles Congress was to be forbidden to outlaw slavery in areas over which it had control, such as military posts or the District of Columbia.

4th Amendment

Congress was to be forbidden to prohibit the transportation of slaves across state lines. It did not bother to stop them from prohibiting it in state lines, because they recognized that the federal government does not have control of what happens in a state except in very special circumstances. The conflict preceding the civil war was over whether or not slave states were to be let into the union, because the Constitution allows the Congress to refuse admission for any reason.

5th Amendment

The Congress was allowed to pay the owners of slaves the value of their slave if the fugitive slave law could not be enforced. The fugitive slave law was part of the Constitution that stated that legal slaves who escaped to other states were to be returned to their masters. This was another big issue before the war of whether or not that law should be enforced. This amendment would empower the Congress to reimburse an owner whose slave could not be recovered because of an abolitionist mob or something of that nature.

6th Amendment

The last proposed amendment would make it impossible to remove the other five so that the agreement could never be revoked. This would protect the Southern states if the free states gained a majority in Congress.

Other Laws

The compromise also proposed several other laws which would require that the fugitive slave law be enforced. He also suggested a law for the suppression of the African slave trade. We will discuss the slave trade in a later post, but most people today do not realize that the slave trade had been outlawed since 1808, the first year that it could be Constitutionally forbidden.

Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for President

The Fate of the Compromise

The Crittenden Compromise was referred to the Senate committee of thirteen. Lincoln, the president-elect, sent out letters to try to get the compromise rejected. This is what he wrote to E. B. Washburne regarding the compromise:

Prevent as far as possible, any of our friends from demoralizing themselves and our cause by entertaining propositions for compromise of any sort on ‘slavery extension.’ There is no possible compromise upon it but which puts us under again and leaves all our work to do over again. … On that point hold firm, as with a chain of steel.1

Lincoln was successful and all five Republicans voted against it. Jefferson Davis and another member agreed since the compromise was worthless if the Republicans did not agree.

Lincoln’s Destruction of the Union

Here Lincoln had a chance to preserve the Union, and he rejected it. At times during the war he said that they were fighting to preserve the Union, with or without slavery.2 But this was simply not true. He would not do anything that would further the spread of slavery, and that is why he opposed the Crittenden Compromise. His true motives are revealed in his famous “House Divided” speech which he gave on his nomination to run for President:

‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.3
In another speech he said “I think Slavery is wrong, morally, and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union.”4 Lincoln threw away his chance to save the Union because he believed that slavery needed to be removed from the United States.

Note: The Crittenden Compromise can be read here.
1. McClure’s Magazine, November, 1989. p. 163. Source
2. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and whoat I forbear, I forbear beacuse I do not believe it would help save the Union.” The Century, November 1888-April 1889. (New York: The Century Co, 1889) p. 441. Source
3. Debates of Lincoln and Douglas (Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning Inc., 1998) p. 115. Source
4. Ibid, p. 256.


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