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John Jordan Crittenden
(September 10, 1786 – July 26, 1863)


John J. Crittenden was a U.S. senator, U.S. attorney general, and governor of Kentucky.  In December 1861, Congressman Crittenden proposed six constitutional amendments and four congressional resolutions aimed at appeasing and keeping the slave states in the Union.  The “Crittenden Compromise,” as they were collectively known, was not enacted.

He was born on September 10, 1786, in Woodford County, Kentucky, to Judith Harris Crittenden and John Crittenden, a Revolutionary War veteran and substantial landowner.  Young Crittenden attended local schools in Kentucky—Pisgah Academy and a boarding school—and college in Virginia, first at Washington Academy (now Washington and Lee University) and then at the College of William and Mary, from which he graduated in 1807.  He next studied law with a family friend in Lexington, Kentucky, passed the bar and began practicing in Woodford County.  Connections with Ninian Edwards, governor of the Illinois Territory, led to his appointment as territorial attorney general (1809-1810).  In 1811, he resettled in Logan County, Kentucky, and won the first of six consecutive terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives (1811-1817).  He also married Sarah Lee in 1811; the couple later had seven children.  During the War of 1812 (1812-1815), he served as a military aid to the governor, who commanded Kentucky’s troops.

After the war, Crittenden focused on his legislative duties and served as speaker of the State House in 1815-1816.  In 1817, the state legislature elected him to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate.  When the term ended in March 1819, he opened a law practice in the Kentucky state capital of Frankfurt.  He gained a national legal reputation and attracted a prestigious clientele, including former Presidents James Madison and James Monroe and Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky, who became his political mentor.  Crittenden’s wife died in 1824, and two years later he married Maria Todd, a widow; the couple later had two children.  He was elected to the State House in 1825, but lost his reelection bid the next year.  In 1827, President John Quincy Adams appointed him as a federal district attorney, and in December 1828 nominated him for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.  In early 1829, a Senate vote on the justiceship was postponed indefinitely, and President Andrew Jackson then removed Crittenden as a federal district attorney.  Later that year, the Kentuckian won election to the State House, where he served until 1832. 

In 1834, Crittenden was appointed as Kentucky’s secretary of state, and later that year was elected by a Whig majority in the state legislature to a seat in the U.S. Senate (1835-1841).  At the end of the senate term, President William Henry Harrison named him to be the U.S. attorney general, but he resigned after the president’s sudden death in April 1841.  The next year, the state legislature returned him to the U.S. Senate.  He supported Clay’s unsuccessful presidential candidacy in 1844, and opposed the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the declaration of war with Mexico in 1846.  However, he voted to fund the war effort and backed the presidential candidacy of General Zachary Taylor, a relative of his first wife, in 1848. 

Crittenden also resigned from the Senate in 1848 to run successfully for governor of Kentucky.  His gubernatorial administration oversaw construction of a state prison, the drafting of a new state constitution, and the beginning of a state geological survey.  In 1850, he resigned as governor to accept President Millard Fillmore’s offer of the U.S. attorney generalship.  In that position, he affirmed the constitutionality of the new Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the Compromise of 1850.  His second wife died in 1851, and he married Elizabeth Ashley, a widow, two years later; they had no children.

In 1854, the Kentucky legislature again elected Crittenden to the U.S. Senate, where he advocated sectional compromise as tensions rose over the issue of slavery.  In 1860, he was one of the founders of the Constitutional Union Party, but lost its presidential nomination to Senator John Bell of Tennessee.  That fall, Crittenden won a seat in the U.S. House.  The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president provoked Southern slave states to begin seceding from the Union.  In an effort to appease them, Crittenden offered six constitutional amendments and four congressional resolutions.  The measures would have strengthened federal protection of slavery, including extending the old Missouri Compromise line of 36° 30' line to the West Coast and allowing slavery south of it.  A Senate coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats defeated the “Crittenden Compromise.”  During the Civil War, Crittenden remained a staunch Unionist, although he opposed the Lincoln administration’s policies of a military draft, Emancipation Proclamation, and statehood for West Virginia.  One of his sons served as a Union general and another as a Confederate general.  Crittenden was a candidate for reelection to Congress when he died in Frankfort, Kentucky, on July 26, 1863.

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