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Crittenden Compromise // Corwin Amendment

On November 10, 1860, four days after the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the South Carolina legislature became the first to call for a convention to consider seceding from the Union.  Elections were held on December 6, and the convention opened on December 17.  On December 20, 1860, delegates to the South Carolina convention unanimously approved a secession resolution, making it the first of 11 Southern slave states to leave the Union.  The cover of the December 22, 1860 issue of Harper’s Weekly pictured the congressional delegation from the seceding state of South Carolina. 

On December 18, the U.S. Senate formed a special Committee of Thirteen to find a “plan of adjustment” that would solve the secession crisis.  The same day, Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky, a committee member, proposed six constitutional amendments and four congressional resolutions aimed at appeasing and keeping the slave states in the Union.  Crittenden was a former Whig whose political mentor had been Henry Clay, known as the “Great Compromiser” for his role in creating the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850.  In early 1860, Crittenden had been a founder of the Constitutional Union Party, which urged voters not to let the slavery issue tear the nation apart.  That December, Crittenden’s congressional resolutions offered stronger protection of the Fugitive Slave Law.  His proposed constitutional amendments would have: 

  1. extended the old Missouri Compromise line of 36° 30' to California, allowing slavery below and banning it above the line, and protecting slavery from congressional interference;

  2. forbidden Congress from banning slavery on federal property in slave states (e.g., military post);

  3. prevented Congress from abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia as long as it was legal in Maryland and Virginia;

  4. banned Congress from interfering with the interstate slave trade;

  5. mandated Congress to compensate owners of runaway slaves;  and,

  6. made the other five amendments and the 3/5 and fugitive slave clauses of the Constitution not subject to repeal.

The Crittenden Compromise was unacceptable to President-elect Lincoln because it would have expanded slavery into the Western territories and given perpetual protection to the institution.  The five Republicans on the Committee of Thirteen voted against it.  The six Border State and Northern Democrats on the committee favored the Crittenden Compromise, but the two senators from the Deep South wanted assurances that the slavery zone would apply to future territory as well.  Republicans feared that Southern Democrats wanted to expand U.S. territory and slavery south into the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.  On December 31, 1860, the Committee of Thirteen reported to the full Senate that it was unable to agree on any measure.   

Another member of the Committee of Thirteen was Senator Robert Toombs of Georgia.  Over his political career, he had changed from being a moderate Whig and unionist into a Democrat and a supporter of secession.  He would later serve briefly as the Confederacy’s first secretary of state and then for almost two years as a Confederate general.  In a telegraph message to his Georgia constituents, published in the January 5, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly, Toombs lamented the defeat of the Crittenden Compromise and other proposals, including his own, for which he blamed the “Black Republicans” (a derogatory term for white Republicans who opposed slavery).  His proposals reaffirmed the Kansas-Nebraska Act doctrine of allowing the territories to decide the question of slavery, protected slavery from Congressional intervention, and strengthened enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.  The Committee of Thirty-Three mentioned in the telegram refers to a special House committee (equivalent to the Senate Committee of Thirteen), which had also failed to endorse any compromise proposal.  In the telegram, Toombs claimed that all efforts at compromise have been exhausted and, therefore, endorsed immediate secession.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  December 22, 1860, p. 801

2)  January 5, 1861, p. 6, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column, “Senator Toombs for Secession at Once”

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Crittenden Compromise // Corwin Amendment





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