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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,242


This is the grave of John C. Crittenden.

Born in 1787 outside of Versailles, Kentucky, Crittenden grew up on what was then frontier of genocide and slavery. His father was a major in the American Revolution who moved to Kentucky as soon as possible and dispossessed the tribes of their land there, while bringing in Africans to do the labor for whites. He went to all the best schools available to the southern elite at the time, which mostly weren’t really that good, eventually ending up as many did at William and Mary for a good education.

Crittenden completed college in 1806, passed the bar, and started practicing law back in Kentucky. But like many of his ilk, the law was just a backing to go into politics. He moved to Illinois Territory for awhile, where he was named the territory’s attorney general at the age of 22. But he moved back to Kentucky, bought a big plantation, owned upwards of forty or fifty people at his peak, and went into elected politics, first going to the Kentucky statehouse in 1811. He fought in the War of 1812, which was very popular in the West, and was at the Battle of the Thames in 1813 where Tecumseh was killed and the serious threat of a British-Native alliance in the West was vanquished. The governor of Kentucky wanted to name him to the Senate in 1814, but hadn’t actually read the Constitution and didn’t know that you couldn’t be a senator at the age of 27. He might briefly be denied Washington, but he did become Speaker of the Kentucky House in 1815 for a term. He did get named to the Senate in 1817, when he turned 30, but only remained there for two years before he resigned to make more money at home.

Crittenden remained active in Kentucky politics, was on the commission to settle the boundary with Tennessee, and got involved with the financial interests side of the state’s Old Court-New Court controversy. In short, the state passed a law to provide debtor relief, the state court threw it out, and the governor attempted to replace the old court with a new one. This got crazy, with assassinations and everything. In short, this became a proxy battle that helped end the so-called Era of Good Feelings, with New Court types ending up as followers of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party and Old Court types, including Crittenden, following Henry Clay into what eventually morphed into the Whigs.

Crittenden returned to the Senate in 1835 as a Whig. From here on out, he remained an important political nationally, not just in Kentucky. He was one of the biggest banking supporters in the Jackson’s Bank War. He lambasted Democrats for their policies of genocide in Florida. He was a moderate on slavery, as was still common at that time, preferring to just sweep it under the rug and never talk about it, which was necessary if the Whigs were to survive as a party.

In 1840, after William Henry Harrison won the presidency, Crittenden was named Attorney General. John Tyler took over after the old man dropped dead and when he vetoed Clay’s bills on banking, Crittenden led the entire Cabinet to resign except for Daniel Webster, who stayed on at State. Clay resigned his Senate seat in 1842 and Crittenden returned to Washington to take it. He opposed the Mexican-American War, so blatantly started by James Polk to steal half of Mexico to expand slavery. Crittenden considered it completely unjust. There was some talk of him running for president in 1848, but Zachary Taylor got the nomination. Crittenden ran for governor of Kentucky that year instead and won. Taylor offered him Secretary of State, but he turned it down. He stayed in the position for almost two years and was a typical Whig governor in supporting business interests and infrastructure building.

In 1850, with Millard Fillmore now president, Crittenden got an offer to come back to Washington as Attorney General. This time he accepted. The first thing he did was to advise Fillmore to sign the Fugitive Slave Act. So that’s just great. He was then offered the VP spot under Winfield Scott in 1852, but turned that one down. He wanted to go back to the Senate and did so yet again in 1855. He tried to break up the attack by Preston Brooks on Charles Sumner but was forcibly stopped from doing so. The Whig Party was now falling apart over the question of slavery. Crittenden continued trying to split the difference. He initially opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but later came around to Stephen A. Douglas‘ idea of popular sovereignty and allowing settlers to vote on slavery in any territory, regardless of the Missouri Compromise.

So by the time we get to 1860, Crittenden has a national reputation as a slaveowner with a moderate reputation on the issue, someone who a lot of people respected. He tried to muster moderate forces in 1860 and that led to the Constitutional Union Party led by John Bell, after Crittenden turned down the nomination because he was old. That of course went nowhere, though did win in the Upper South.

So then, after Abraham Lincoln won and South Carolina led the Deep South in secession, Crittenden put it all on the line to intervene. This was the Crittenden Compromise. The problem with Crittenden’s ideas here is that they basically came down to this–the North has to give the South everything it wants around slavery and then the South’s won’t secede now but might totally do so later. Lincoln rejected this out of hand and good for him. He knew war was inevitable and even though that would cost lives, violence is indeed sometimes the answer. You couldn’t just keep compromising with southern fireeaters. The line was drawn and Lincoln wasn’t going to go one step further. Crittenden was of course extremely frustrated, but in truth, time had passed him by and his moderate positions just didn’t have much sway anymore, even though there were plenty of Americans in the North who really just wanted the issue of slavery to go away.

Not surprisingly, Crittenden remained a conservative unionist. Most of his family did too, but one son fought for the Confederacy, outraging his father. He accepted an election to Congress in 1861 as a Unionist candidate and served on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He pushed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution to state that the point of the war was to defend the Constitution and the Union and not to end slavery, but the House refused to pass it even though the Senate did. He was outraged by both the Emancipation Proclamation and the creation of West Virginia as a state. He believed that Virginia was still a sovereign state that had to consent, even though it had committed treason in defense of slavery. This is the perfect summation of Crittenden’s politics–pretend like it was still 1825.

Crittenden died in 1863, preparing to run for yet another term in Congress. He was 75 years old.

John C. Crittenden is buried in Frankfort Cemetery, Frankfort, Kentucky.

If you would like this series to visit other people who have served as Attorney General, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Griffin Bell, who was under Carter from 1977-79, is in Americus, Georgia, and Harry Daugherty, the King of Corruption under Harding, is in Washington Court House, Ohio. I was tempted to visit Merrick Garland, but I’m unclear if he is alive or dead considering the last two years. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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