Crittenden Compromise

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The Crittenden Compromise was a failed effort to prevent the American Civil War. On December 18, 1860 (two days before South Carolina seceded from the Union), a U.S. Senate committee proposed it to allay the South's fears about President-elect Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. It would have prohibited the Federal government from ever interfering with slavery.


The Crittenden Compromise was authored by Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky. It was referred to the Committee of Thirteen, a committee of elder Senators formed in a last-ditch effort to prevent the Civil War.


The Crittenden Compromise consisted of six proposed Constitutional amendments and four proposed Congressional resolutions. The Constitutional amendments provided:

  1. The Missouri Compromise line would have been written into the Constitution, overturning the Dred Scott decision which had ruled it unconstitutional. This would have offended both the South, which wanted to be able to take slaves into every territory; and the Republicans, who wanted to exclude slavery from all territories.
  2. Congress would have been prohibited from abolishing slavery in "places under its exclusive jurisdiction" (such as military bases) within slaveholding states.
  3. Congress would have been prohibited from abolishing slavery within the District of Columbia as long as it existed in either Maryland or Virginia (then both slave states). Petitioning for such abolition was a favorite tactic of abolitionists to get Congress to discuss slavery. Currently, under the Compromise of 1850, slavery was allowed but the slave trade was prohibited. (The slave dealers had moved to Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River, making it a major center of the slave trade.)
  4. Congress could not use its interstate commerce power to abolish slavery. It was currently a point of contention whether it could.
  5. The Federal Government would be forced to compensate slave owners for the value of slaves rescued from Federal marshals by abolitionist mobs. One such attempted rescue in Massachusetts had made headline news.
  6. All these articles, plus various other provisions protecting slavery, would be entrenched against future amendment.

The congressional resolutions, while having no legal force in themselves, would have stated:

  1. That the Fugitive Slave Act was constitutional and should be enforced.
  2. That state laws impeding it, such as the Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act, were unconstitutional and should be repealed.
  3. That Federal commissioners should be paid the same whether they agreed to send a fugitive back or not. Currently, they were paid more for returning an alleged fugitive - a point of contention with abolitionists, who argued that it was an incentive to legalize kidnapping.
  4. That the African slave trade should be better suppressed. This would have been supported both by abolitionists and by slave traders who would have disliked such competition.


Two days after the resolutions were proposed, South Carolina seceded, rendering them largely moot. Meanwhile, the Republicans criticized them as one-sided concessions to Southern demands.[1] On December 31, the Committee of Thirteen admitted defeat,[2] and the Compromise was tabled.

However, the sixth proposed amendment later resurfaced as the Corwin Amendment, which would have prohibited Congress or any Constitutional amendment from ever interfering with slavery. Congress passed it on March 2, 1861, and outgoing President Buchanan endorsed it. Since this technically fulfilled the Republicans' campaign promises, new President Lincoln supported it in his inaugural address.[3] However, events soon rendered this moot as well: only two states ever ratified it.[4]

Crittenden himself later co-authored the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution, which stated that the sole purpose of the Civil War was to preserve the Union.