The Failure of the Crittenden Compromise

Crittenden compromise

The Crittenden Compromise of 1860 was a last-ditch effort to prevent the secession of Southern states and avert the impending Civil War. Proposed by Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, the compromise sought to address the contentious issue of slavery by extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean and guaranteeing the protection of slavery in existing slave states. Despite its noble intentions, the Crittenden Compromise ultimately failed to garner sufficient support and was unable to prevent the fracture of the Union. This essay examines the reasons behind the failure of the Crittenden Compromise and its implications for the onset of the Civil War.

1. Sectional Divide and Political Polarization

The primary reason for the failure of the Crittenden Compromise was the deep sectional divide and political polarization that gripped the nation in the antebellum period. By the late 1850s, the United States had become increasingly divided along regional lines, with Northern and Southern states entrenched in opposing positions on the issue of slavery. The election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, further heightened tensions and convinced many Southern states that their interests were no longer secure within the Union.

2. Intransigence of Southern Secessionists

The secessionist movement in the South was fueled by a sense of grievance and a commitment to the preservation of slavery and states’ rights. Many Southern leaders viewed the Crittenden Compromise as insufficient to protect their interests and saw secession as the only viable option for safeguarding the institution of slavery. Despite Crittenden’s efforts to appease Southern concerns by guaranteeing the protection of slavery in existing territories and proposing a constitutional amendment to enshrine these protections, secessionists remained unmoved and determined to pursue independence.

3. Northern Resistance to Compromise

While some Northern Democrats and moderate Republicans supported the Crittenden Compromise as a means of preserving the Union, many Northern abolitionists and radical Republicans rejected any compromise that would extend the reach of slavery or compromise the principles of freedom and equality. These factions viewed the Crittenden Compromise as a capitulation to the demands of Southern slaveholders and a betrayal of the anti-slavery cause. As a result, they mobilized opposition to the compromise and refused to compromise on their principles.

4. Timing and Political Realities

The timing of the Crittenden Compromise also played a significant role in its failure. By the time Crittenden introduced his compromise proposal in Congress in December 1860, several Southern states had already seceded from the Union, and the country stood on the brink of civil war. The escalation of tensions and the breakdown of trust between Northern and Southern states made it increasingly difficult to reach a political consensus and find common ground on the issue of slavery. Moreover, the partisan divisions within Congress and the absence of effective leadership further hindered efforts to achieve a compromise.


The failure of the Crittenden Compromise represents a missed opportunity to avert the Civil War and preserve the Union. Despite the efforts of Senator Crittenden and other moderate voices to find a middle ground on the issue of slavery, the deep-seated divisions and political polarization that characterized the antebellum period proved insurmountable. Ultimately, the failure of the Crittenden Compromise underscored the irreconcilable differences between North and South and set the stage for the bloodiest conflict in American history.

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