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
Compromise of 1850. His second wife died
in 1851, and he married Elizabeth Ashley, a widow, two years
later; they had no children.
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
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.