When the Republican Party assembled in Chicago from May 16 to May 18, 1860, to nominate a candidate for the U.S. presidency, they adopted a platform that would prohibit the extension of slavery in the United States, impose high tariffs to protect northern industry, and provide free land to homesteaders in the West. Southern states were so alarmed by these pro-Northern policies that several of them began threatening to secede from the Union if the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected. On November 10, only four days after Lincoln won the election, South Carolina was the first state to act, calling for a state convention to consider secession. The convention convened in Columbia on December 17. The next day, Kentucky Senator John Crittenden introduced an eleventh-hour compromise proposal in the United States Senate to save the Union.
Crittenden’s Compromise Plan
The Crittenden Plan, also known as the Crittenden Compromise, comprised six constitutional amendments and four Congressional resolutions.
Proposed Constitutional Amendments
Crittenden proposed that the U.S. Constitution be amended to:
- Prohibit slavery in all U.S territories “now held, or hereafter acquired,” north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes (the old Missouri Comprise line). In territories south of that line, Congress would recognize and not interfere with the institution of slavery. This amendment went on to state that property in slaves would be “protected by all the departments of the territorial government during its continuance” and that states would be admitted to the Union from any territory, with or without slavery as their constitutions provided.
- Prohibit Congress from abolishing slavery in places under its jurisdiction within a slave state, such as a military post.
- Prohibit Congress from abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, so long as slavery existed in the adjoining states of Virginia and Maryland, and without the consent of the District’s inhabitants. This amendment would also compensate owners of freed slaves who did not consent to abolition.
- Prohibit Congress from abolishing or interfering with the interstate slave trade.
- Require the federal government to provide full restitution to slave owners for the cost of capturing fugitive slaves in northern states.
- Prohibit any future amendments of the Constitution, altering Crittenden’s proposed amendments, or interfering with the institution of slavery in any slave state.
Crittenden’s four Congressional resolutions stipulated that:
- Fugitive slave laws were constitutional and should be faithfully observed and executed.
- All state laws which impeded the operation of fugitive slave laws, the so-called “Personal Liberty laws,” were unconstitutional and should be repealed.
- The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 should be modified (and rendered less objectionable to the North) by equalizing the fee schedule for returning or releasing alleged fugitives and limiting the powers of marshals to summon citizens to aid in their capture.
- Laws for the suppression of the African slave trade should be effectively and thoroughly executed.
Committee of Thirteen
After Crittenden presented his plan, the Senate consigned it to the Committee of Thirteen, which had been formed to deal with the secession crisis. After nearly two weeks of consideration, on December 30, the committee reported to the Senate that it could not reach a consensus on Crittenden’s proposals.
Despite the failure of the Committee of Thirteen, Crittenden was able to get his compromise plan before the full Senate, where it was considered during the first three weeks of January 1861. At the urging of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, Radical Republican Senators opposed the Crittenden Compromise because it would have permitted the extension of slavery in future U.S. territories and states. Lincoln believed that his party should not concede its success at the polls the previous November, on the floor of the Senate.
On January 16, 1861, the Senate defeated Crittenden’s proposal by a vote of twenty-five to twenty-three. Republican senators cast all twenty-five votes against the measure. By the time of the Senate vote, four southern states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama) had seceded from the Union. Fourteen senators from southern states that had seceded or were about to secede did not take part in the vote, almost assuring its defeat.
The Crittenden Plan was never seriously considered again in Congress, which was dominated by Northern states after the Southern states seceded. Nevertheless, Copperheads, Peace Democrats, and conservative Northern newspapers unsuccessfully attempted to resurrect Crittenden’s proposals as a basis for ending hostilities throughout the duration of the war.