The Crittenden Compromise

In the days and weeks immediately following the secession of South Carolina and six other Southern states, the people living in America's Northern states reacted with a mixture of anger, confusion, and surprise. De spite all the pre-election warnings that the South had delivered, many Northerners never really believed that their Southern neighbors might actually decide to leave the Union.

When it became apparent that the slave states of the Deep South were willing to make good on their threat, however, several lawmakers scrambled to bring them back into the fold. Political leaders in Virginia organized a peace convention in which representatives from twenty-one states tried—but failed—to come up with a compromise that would satisfy both sides. President James Buchanan (1791-1868) also made some half-hearted attempts to repair the damage that had been done. But Buchanan, a Democrat, blamed Lincoln and the Republicans for the crisis. After all, the Republicans had been the ones taking a hard line against slavery. The Southern states only planned to secede because they felt that Lincoln could not possibly represent their interests as president. In the end, the outgoing president seemed willing to leave the messy situation to Lincoln, who was scheduled to take over the presidency after his inauguration on March 4, 1861.

The most serious proposal to restore the Union was crafted by a Kentucky lawmaker named John Crittenden (1787-1863). A senator from one of several mid-South states that had not yet decided whether to stay with the Union or secede, Crittenden called for a series of compromises on a wide range of issues. The major elements of his proposal, however, were two pro posed constitutional amendments (revisions). One amendment would protect slavery in all of the states where it already existed, and the other one would provide for the extension of slavery all the way to the Pacific Ocean in American territory located south of the old Missouri Compromise line.

The Crittenden Compromise was studied by both sides, but in the end it was rejected. The states that had already seceded were tired of compromising and arguing, and their leaders showed little interest in resuming their tense relationship with the North. Lincoln, meanwhile, was willing to consider an amendment protecting slavery where it currently existed. But he and his fellow Republicans flatly rejected the proposal that would have allowed the South to expand slavery into new areas. "We have just carried an election," Lincoln wrote, "on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance that the government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. . . . If we surrender, it is the end of us and the end of the government."

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