Notable Visitors: John J. Crittenden (1787-1863)

Kentucky congressman (1861-1863) who supported the Union and compromise, but also supported slavery. Previous to the Civil War, Crittenden has served as a U.S. senator from Kentucky (1817-1819, 1835-1841, 1842-1848, 1855-1861), U.S. attorney general (1850-1853 and briefly in 1841), governor of Kentucky (1848-1850).

“Hardly anyone, after [Henry] Clay and [Daniel] Webster, owned better Whig credentials than John Crittenden,” wrote historian Allen Guelzo. “He filled Clay’s seat in the Senate, stood as best man at Lincoln’s father-in-law-s second marriage, and or all practical purposes, inherited the mantle of what was left of the Whig leadership. Lincoln first met Crittenden in 1847, during his lone term in the House of Representatives, and he stood with Crittenden in opposing the Mexican War and in backing Zachary Taylor for the Whig presidential nomination. He was ‘flattered in 1849 ‘to learn that Mr. Crittenden’ remembered him, and even though it was not more than a ‘slight general recollection,’ Crittenden had allowed that Lincoln was a ‘rising man.”1

After Clay’s death in 1852, Crittenden took over Clay’s role an the chief old-line Whig advocate of compromise between the North and South. Historian Douglas R. Egerton noted that Crittenden was the leading candidate in the spring of 1860 to be named at the top of the Constitutional Union party ticket. Egerton wrote that “if Crittenden was determined to be the architect of a new, centrist party, he was equally determined not to be that party’s standard-bearer.” He had told his daughter he would not run, rather complete his Senate service and then retire. Instead, he pushed the candidacy of Tennessee’s [John] Bell.2

After Lincoln won the presidential election that November, Senator Crittenden saw a new role as the champion of congressional legislation to avoid secession. On December 18, 1860, Crittenden introduced his bill. The House and Senate both appointed committees to search for an agreeable compromise. Publicly uncommitted, President-elect Lincoln wrote key Republican leaders to block Crittenden’s plan. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lincoln’s emphatic opposition to the Crittenden Compromise was partly responsible for its defeat in the Committee of Thirteen on December 22 and in the Senate on January 16. On the day of the first vote, Charles Francis Adams observed that the ‘declarations coming almost openly from Mr Lincoln have had the effect of perfectly consolidating the Republicans. Senator Henry Wilson reported that some congressional Republicans ‘are weak; most of them are firm. Lincoln’s firmness helps our weak ones.'”3

At the end of December a Lincoln acquaintance, Kentuckian Duff Green, came to Illinois to confer with Mr. Lincoln on behalf of President Buchanan, about potential compromise. Green reported back to Buchanan: “I have had a long and interesting conversation with Mr. Lincoln. I brought with me a copy of the resolutions submitted by Mr. [John J.] Crittenden which he read over several times and said that he believed the adoption of the line proposed would quiet for the present the agitation of the Slavery question, but believed it would be renewed by the seizure and attempted annexation of Mexico.- He said that the real question at issue between the North & the South, was Slavery ‘propagandism’ and that upon that issue the republican party was opposed to the South and that he was with his own party; that he had been elected by that party and intended to sustain his party in good faith, but added that the question of the Amendments to the Constitution and the questions submitted by Mr. Crittenden, belonged to the people & States in legislatures or Conventions & that he would be inclined not only to acquiesce, but to give full force and effect to their will thus expressed.” Green asked for a letter expressing these sentiments and wrote that Mr. Lincoln promised to do so, but the delivery of the letter was delayed until after Mr. Lincoln’s Washington allies reviewed it.4

Supported by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Crittenden continued his efforts. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “In January, Crittenden attempted to have the Senate approve his plan even without the endorsement of the Committee of Thirteen, which had turned it down on December 22. He tacked on two constitutional amendments suggested by Stephen A. Douglas: that free blacks in the states and territories be denied the right to vote or hold office and that free blacks be colonized to Africa or South America at federal expense.”5 Failing to get progress in Congress, Crittenden pushed to get support from the Peace Convention meeting at Willard’s Hotel in late February. Historian Douglas R. Egerton wrote: “A Crittenden entered the hall, delegates rose in ovation; some waved hats and handkerchiefs. Looking every day of his seven decades, Crittenden bowed ‘until he was tired’ before finally taking his seat.”6

Meanwhile in early February, Lincoln friend Orville H. Browning visited President-Elect Lincoln in Springfield and found him unwilling to compromise on slavery with the secessionists: “At night I called at the Chenery House and had an interview of an hour with Mr Lincoln. We discussed the state of the Country expressing our opinions fully and freely. He agreed entirely with me in believing that no good results would follow the border State Convention now in session in Washington, but evil rather, as increased excitement would follow when it broke up without having accomplished any thing. He agreed it broke up without having accomplished any thing. He agreed with me no concession by the free States short of a surrender of every thing worth preserving, and contending for would satisfy the South, and that Crittendens proposed amendment to the Constitution in the form proposed ought not to be made, and he agreed with me that far less evil & bloodshed would result from an effort to maintain the Union and the Constitution, than from disruption and the formation of two confederacies. I expressed my views very freely, and there was no point upon which we differed. This is the first interview I have had with him since the election, and though brief it was satisfactory. I found him firmer than I expected.”7

Crittenden ran out of time as President James Buchanan reached the end of his term and Congress prepared to adjourn. Historian Maury Klein wrote: “Crittenden labored to get either the peace convention proposal or his own plan on the [Senate] floor for the required three readings before adjournment. When Douglas moved consideration of the Corwin amendment on the 1st, however, Crittenden supported him. ‘I go…not for this resolution or that resolution,’ he declared, ‘but any…proposition that will pacify the country.'”8

Just two days after President Lincoln took office, Attorney General Edwin M. Stanton, operating as a hold-over from the Buchanan administration, recommended Crittenden be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. 9 In special session of Congress that summer, Crittenden pushed for passage of the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution that declared that the purpose of the Civil War was not for “overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those States,” but to “defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union.” The resolution passed Congress on July 23. Over the next two years, Crittenden occasionally made recommendations or requests to the president – including one in 1861 when he recommended a relative of Mary Todd Lincoln: “I desire to recommend to your most favourable consideration my old acquaintance & friend Coln: Charles Todd – He is the son of the late Mr Justice Tod[d], of the Supreme Court of the U: States, & the son-in- late Governor Shelby of Kenty.”10 For President Lincoln, it was particularly important to maintain the loyalty of Border States, especially Kentucky, and Crittenden’s loyalty was vital to that effort.

In November 1861, Crittenden requested that President Lincoln intervene in the case of former Kentucky Governor Charles Moorhead, who had been accused of treason. The same month, Crittenden wrote Lincoln to ” beg…. that in that Message you will say nothing on the subject of slavery or slaves, & that you will require of your Secretaries the same forbearance in their Reports to Congress-

Have you not said enough, sir, to make known your position & policy on that subject, in reference to the present War,? And having done so, I think you will agree with me, that it should be avoided as much as possible– It is a topic which has been the bane of our country, & it must be wise, therefore to shut off, as far as possible, its powerful & dangerous upon the terrible & mighty contest in which we are engaged for National existence– But, Sir, I ought not to presume to argue this matter to you, & I will not– I may say, however, that nothing but the clearest convictions on my part, of the policy of the course I have suggested, and of it’s great importance also, could have induced me to trouble you with this communication.11

In the March of 1862, President Lincoln began to look for a compromise regarding slavery – beginning with compensated emancipation of slavery in the Border States that had not joined the Confederacy. The president met repeatedly with congressional representatives from the Border States, including Crittenden. As Congress was adjourning on July 12 and passing the Second Confiscation Act, Lincoln met with a group of Border State representatives in a final attempt to get their approval for compensated emancipation. Historian William Ernest Smith wrote: “The President appealed to the venerable John J. Crittenden whose influence was thought to be very great among the people in the border region, ‘but burdened with the weight of years, and hedged by the tangles and pitfalls of his conservative obligations, he was timid, spiritless, despondent.’ The elder [Francis P. Blair was asked by the President to persuade Crittenden to support the proposition. Blair could do it, he thought, if any man in America could. Blair received the appeal not before July 12, and being unable to find Crittenden in the city, he wrote to Crittenden …..Crittenden refused to act. He had no constructive policy of his own, and the remainder of the border statesmen, except the Blairs, Davis, and Bates, had only protests and excuses to offer. Twenty of them jointly wrote in a confused manner their reasons for their opposition to the President’s recommendation. Possibly those who opposed the President were fearful that the North might fail to defeat the South and that Northern bonds would be in time be next to worthless.”12

Crittenden never ceased trying to block emancipation. On December 18, 1862, Lincoln met with Congressman Crittenden – along with Maryland Congressman John W. Crisfield and Missouri Congressman William A. Hall at their request – presumably about Lincoln’s preparation to issue the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Illinois Congressman Isaac N. Arnold remembered: “The President had urged, with the utmost earnestness, on the loyal slave-holders of the Border States, gradual and compensated emancipation, but in vain. He clearly saw, all saw, that the slaves, as used by the Confederates, were a vast power, contributing immensely to their ability to carry on the war, and that, by declaring their freedom, he would convert millions of freedmen into active friends and allies of the Union. The people knew that he was deliberating upon the question of issuing this Emancipation Proclamation. At this crisis the Union men of the Border States made an appeal to him to withhold the edict, and suffer slavery to survive.”

They selected John J. Crittenden, a venerable and eloquent man, and their ablest statesman, to make, on the floor of Congress, a public appeal to the President, to withhold the proclamation. Mr. Crittenden had been governor of Kentucky, her senator in Congress, attorney-general of the United States, and now, in his old age, covered with honors, he accepted, like John Quincy Adams, a seat in Congress, that in this crisis he might help to save his country.
He was a sincere Union man, but believed it unwise to disturb slavery. In his speech he made a most eloquent and touching appeal, from a Kentuckian to a Kentuckian. He said, among other things, “There is a niche, near to that of Washington, to him who shall save his country. If Mr. Lincoln will step into that niche, the founder and the preserver of the Republic shall stand side by side.” Owen Lovejoy, the brother of Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had been mobbed and murdered because he would not surrender the liberty of the press, replied to Crittenden. After his brother’s murder, kneeling upon the green sod which covered that brother’s grave, he had taken a solemn vow, of eternal war upon slavery. Ever after, like Peter the Hermit, with a heart of fire and a tongue of lightning, he had gone forth, preaching his crusade against slavery. At length, in his reply, turning to Crittenden, he said, “The gentleman from Kentucky says he has a niche for Abraham Lincoln, where is it?”
Crittenden pointed toward heaven.13

Failing health had convinced the 75-year-old Crittenden not to run for reelection in 1863 but he was prevailed upon to change his mind. He died, however, in late July. President Lincoln wrote his wife an unusually chatty letter on August 8, 1863 – which he posted but apparently was never delivered – in which he delivered news of Crittenden’s death in an offhand manner:

All as well as usual, and no particular trouble any way. I put the money into the Treasury at five per cent, with the previlege [sic] of withdrawing it any time upon thirty days’ notice. I suppose you are glad to learn this. Tell dear Tad, poor ‘Nanny Goat,’ is lost; and Mrs. Cuthbert & I are in distress about it. The day you left Nanny was found resting herself, and chewing her little cud, on the middle of Tad’s bed. But now she’s gone! The gardener kept complaining that she destroyed the flowers, till it was concluded to bring her down to he White House. This was done, and the second day she had disappeared, and has not been heard of since. This is the last we know of poor ‘Nanny.’
The weather continues dry, and excessively warm here.
Nothing very important occurring. The election in Kentucky has gone very strongly right.
Old Mr. [Charles] Wickliffe got ugly, as you know, ran for Governor, and is terribly beaten. Upon Mr. Crittenden’s death, Brutus Clay, Cassius’ brother, was put on the track for Congress, and is largely elected. Mr. Menzies, who, as we thought, behaved very badly last session of Congress, is largely beaten in the District opposite Cincinnati, by Green Clay Smith, Cassius Clay’s nephew. But enough.14

President Lincoln had ample reason to hold a grudge against Crittenden, with whom he had worked in 1848 for the Whig nomination of General Zachary Taylor over Kentucky’s own Henry Clay. Worried about the potential of a Crittenden endorsement of Democrat Senator Stephen A. Douglas in the 1858 Senate race, Lincoln had reached out to Senator Crittenden in early July during the campaign: “I beg you will pardon me for the liberty in addressing you upon only so limited an acquaintance, and that acquaintance so long past. I am prompted to do so by a story being whispered about here that you are anxious for the reelection of Mr. Douglas to the United States Senate, and also of Harris, of our district, to the House of Representatives, and that you are pledged to write letters to that effect to your friends here in Illinois, if requested. I do not believe the story, but still it gives me some uneasiness. If such was your inclination, I do not believe you would so express yourself. It is not in character with you as I have always estimated you.

You have no warmer friends than here in Illinois, and I assure you nine tenths – I believe ninety-nine hundredths – of them would be mortified exceedingly by anything of the sort from you. When I tell you this, make such allowance as you think just for my position, which, I doubt not, you understand. Nor am I fishing for a letter on the other side. Even if such could be had, my judgment is that you would better be hands off!
Please drop me a line; and if your purposes are as I hope they are not, please let me know. The confirmation would pain me much, but I should still continue your friend and admirer.15

Crittenden responded at the end of July 1858 with a defense of his support for Douglas in his fight with the Buchanan Administration: “The acquaintance to which you allude as having once, but long ago, existed between us, is still freshly remembered by me, & the favorable sentiments of personal regard & respect with which it impressed me, I have ever since retained.

You are entitled to be frank with me, and you will be best pleased, I think, with frankness on my part – and in that spirit, I will endeavour to reply to your letter.
Mr Douglas & myself have always belonged to different parties, opposed, in politics, to each other; but it so happened that at the last session of Congress we concurred & acted together in opposing the enforcement of the Lecompton Constitution upon the people of Kansas. I regarded that measure as a gross violation of principle and good faith, and fraught with danger to the country. Mr Douglas’s opposition to it was highly gratifying to me. The position taken by him, was full of sacrafice, & full of hazard, yet he took it, and he defended it, like a Man.
For this he had my warm approbation and sympathy – and, when it was understood, that, for the very course of conduct, in which I had concurred & participated, the angry power of the Administration & its party was to be employed to defeat his re-election to the Senate, in Illinois, I could not but wish for his success — and his triumph over such a persecution – I thought that his re-election was necessary as a rebuke to the Administration, and a vindication of the great cause of popular rights & public justice.
In this statement you will find the origin & state of my present feelings in regard to Mr Douglas – They sprung up naturally & spontaneously in my mind – were entirely unconnected with mere party calculations and most certainly, did not include a single particle of personal unkindness or opposition to you.
These sentiments in regard to Mr Douglas; & his conduct on the occasion alluded to, were frequently openly & ardently avowed by me, in many conversations, at Washington and elsewhere – I must confess that I still entertain them, & what ever I do, must correspond with them – But I have it has so happened, that I have, in fact done very little in the matter – Since the adjournment of Congress I have not written a single letter to any person in Illinois – During its session, I do not remember to have written more than three or four, & these were, in every instance, I believe, written in reply to letters received from In some of these letters, possibly in all, Mr Douglas was alluded to & recommended – This is all that I have done – But I have now on my table several letters from citizens of your State, on the subject to which I could not forbear replying without subjecting myself to imputations of insincerity or timidity – One of these letters, for instance, requests me to say whether I did not, at Washington, have a certain conversation with the writer concerning Mr Douglas &c. To these letters I must answer in a proper manner – As to the future, Sir, I can not undertake to promise or to impose any restriction upon my conduct – that must be regulated under whatever circumstances may exist, by my sense of propriety & duty. But this I can truly say to you, that I have no disposition for officious intermeddling – and that I should be extremely sorry to give offence or cause mortification to you or any of my Illinois friends – Whatever my future course may be, I trust that I shall so act as to give no just cause of offence to any candid & liberal friend, even tho’ he may differ with me in opinion.
I have thus explained to you my situation, & the cause & state of my feelings on the occasion, & now leave the subject to you with every confidence in your justice & liberality –
What I have said in relation to Mr Douglas may be regarded as applying in all material respects to Mr [Thomas] Harris, your present Representative in Congress.16

Lincoln, however, was doubly betrayed. Not only did Whig Crittenden write a letter endorsing Douglas. Crittenden did so in response to a response to a request from a long-time Whig friend of Lincoln, T. Lyle Dickey. And Crittenden did so in early August, only days after writing Lincoln. Douglas , whose relationships with President James Buchanan had been decimated by conflict over the Lecompton constitution in Kansas, clearly cultivated his relationship with Crittenden. Old-line Whigs continued to be an important electoral force in central Illinois. In the final Lincoln-Douglas debate that October, Lincoln was driven to mention that “Judge Douglas is very fond of complimenting Mr. Crittenden in these days.”17 Lincoln was right to worry about the coming October surprise.

Lincoln ally Henry Clay Whitney recalled: “About a week before the election, T. Lyle Dickey, one of Lincoln’s long-time friends, who, however sympathized with the view of [Horace] Greeley regarding Douglas, published a letter from Crittenden which he had been keeping for some time as an eleventh-hour document.”18 Dickey had held the letter until the end of October, when he thought it would have the most impact on Illinois’s former Whigs.

Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “The Illinois State Journal fanned the fires of controversy by mistakenly suggesting that Dickey’s Crittenden letter was a forgery and erroneously claiming that the Kentucky senator had written to a leading resident fo Springfield expressing ‘himself heartily in favor of other triumph of the untied opposition against Douglas, and bids them God speed in the good work.’ The Springfield Register fired back that the ‘leading resident’ was Lincoln himself, and denied that the letter supported the opposition to Douglas.”19 Mr. Lincoln understood the disappointment of friends with these election-changing developments. Still, Lincoln said that Crittenden was someone “I have always loved with an affection as tender and endearing as I have ever loved any man.'”20

Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote that the Crittenden letter “undoubtedly hurt Lincoln most in the very places where he as beaten – that is, in the old whig strongholds of central Illinois.”21 Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “The Chicago Democrat thought Crittenden’s intervention more damaging than the attitude of the Eastern Republicans. ‘The Seward papers in New York and other places may have done us a little injury upon the popular vote, but the loss of no member of the legislature can be attributed to them. It was in the Old Whig and American portions of the State; it was among the Fillmore voters that Mr. Lincoln was slaughtered. The Republican papers there that made Senator Crittenden much stronger than he ever was before, and he was always strong among the emigrants from the slave States. He did all he could against Lincoln. Thus was Lincoln slain in Old Kentucky.'”22 Crittenden biographer Albert D. Kirwan wrote: “For Mary Lincoln it must have been especially painful” to have her husband’s ambitious thwarted by an old family friend.23

Senator Crittenden, who undermined Lincoln’s probable election with his letter to Dickey, nevertheless took offense to possible newspaper publication of his earlier July correspondence with Lincoln. On October 27, he wrote Lincoln: “I have just been apprised that a paragraph in the St: Louis Republican (I think, that is the paper) contains some allusion to our private correspondence, and assumes to call on your for it’s publication.

This has given me much pain & surprise. I do not believe [sic] that you would ever have entertained a suspicion that I was capable of betraying that correspondence, & of causing or prompting, in any way, the paragraph above mentioned – But yet I desire to assure you that I have had no act or part, agency or privity in respect to it, or its publication – It is wholly unauthorised by me. I should have considered myself dishonored, if I could ever have consented to, or permitted any use to be made of our correspondence, that would have been injurious or embarrassing to you –
I hope that this will be satisfactory to you – and, furthermore, I hope that you will not permit this publication to annoy you, half as much as it annoys me.24

After the election, Lincoln wrote Crittenden an artful defense of his actions: “I am sorry the allusion made in the Mo. Republican, to the private correspondence between yourself and me, has given you any pain. It gave me scarcely a thought, perhaps for the reason that, being away from home, I did not see it till only two days before the election. It never occurred to me to cast any blame upon you. I have been told that the correspondence has been alluded to in the Mo. Rep. several times, but I only saw one, of the allusions, and in which it was stated, as I remember that a gentleman of St. Louis had seen a copy of your letter to me. As I had given no copy, nor ever showed the original, of course I infered he had seen it in your hands, but it did not occur to me to blame you for showing what you had written yourself. It was not said that the gentleman had seen a copy or the original of my letter to you.

The emotions of defeat, at the close of a struggle in which I felt more than a merely selfish interest, and to which defeat the use of your name contributed largely, are fresh upon me; but, even in this mood, I can not for a moment suspect you of anything dishonorable.25


  1. Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, p. 273.
  2. Douglas R. Egerton, Year of Meteors, pp. 87-91.
  3. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 715.
  4. Charles M. Segal, editor, Conversations with Lincoln, pp. 62-63 (Letter from Duff Green to James Buchanan, December 28, 1860).
  5. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 714.
  6. Douglas R. Egerton, Year of Meteors, p. 92.
  7. Theodore Calvin Pease, Diary of Orville H. Browning, Volume I, p. 453.
  8. Maury Klein, Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession and the Coming of the Civil War, p. 306.
  9. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Edwin M. Stanton to Abraham Lincoln, March 6, 1861).
  10. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from John J. Crittenden to Abraham Lincoln, November 06, 1861)
  11. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from John J. Crittenden to Abraham Lincoln, November 26, 1861).
  12. William Ernest Smith, The Francis Preston Blair Family in Politics, pp. 201-202.
  13. Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-immortelles, pp. 53-54.
  14. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume VI, pp. 371-372 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, August 8, 1863).
  15. CWAL, Volume II, p. 483 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John J. Crittenden, July 7, 1858).
  16. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from John J. Crittenden to Abraham Lincoln, July 29, 1858).
  17. CWAL, Volume III, p. 305 (Seventh and Last Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Alton, Illinois, October 15, 1858).
  18. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 397.
  19. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 542.
  20. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 549.
  21. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness, p. 118.
  22. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 549.
  23. Albert D. Kirwan, John J. Crittenden : the Struggle for the Union, pp. 338.
  24. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from John J. Crittenden to Abraham Lincoln, October 27, 1858).
  25. CWAL, Volume III, p. 335 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John J. Crittenden, November 4, 1858).


Isaac Arnold
Henry Clay Whitney
Border States
Senate Campaign of 1858
T. Lyle Dickey
Stephen A. Douglas
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas
Edwin M. Stanton
Henry Wilson