Michael D. Robinson: Reconsidering John Jordan Crittenden

A Union Indivisible by Michael D. RobinsonToday, we welcome a guest post from Michael D. Robinson, author of A Union Indivisible:  Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South.

Many accounts of the secession crisis overlook the sharp political conflict that took place in the Border South states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. In A Union Indivisible, Michael D. Robinson expands the scope of this crisis to show how the fate of the Border South, and with it the Union, desperately hung in the balance during the fateful months surrounding the clash at Fort Sumter. During this period, Border South politicians revealed the region’s deep commitment to slavery, disputed whether or not to leave the Union, and schemed to win enough support to carry the day. Although these border states contained fewer enslaved people than the eleven states that seceded, white border Southerners chose to remain in the Union because they felt the decision best protected their peculiar institution. Robinson reveals anew how the choice for union was fraught with anguish and uncertainty, dividing families and producing years of bitter internecine violence. Letters, diaries, newspapers, and quantitative evidence illuminate how, in the absence of a compromise settlement, proslavery Unionists managed to defeat secession in the Border South.

A Union Indivisible is now available in both print and e-book editions.


Reconsidering John Jordan Crittenden

Just a couple of blocks from a bend in the Kentucky River that envelops Frankfort, Kentucky’s historic district, a drab brown sign stands on West Main Street just outside of the nineteenth-century townhome of John Jordan Crittenden.  On a daily basis hundreds of people stroll by the historical marker and the home, both of which inconspicuously blend into the tree-lined street and the unassuming row of brick houses that serve as a quiet reminder of the Kentucky capital’s modest origins.  The gold-lettered heading reads “An Eminent Statesman” and catches the eye of the occasional passerby, but few folks take the time to read the impressive list of Crittenden’s accolades.  The roster of the Kentuckian’s public service leaves little doubt that few nineteenth-century politicians could match his record: Crittenden had been elected governor of the Bluegrass State and represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate on numerous occasions, and three separate presidents made him attorney general in a career that spanned six decades.  Crittenden’s political longevity alone attests to his renown, but most people remember this protégé of Henry Clay for his inability to secure a political settlement that might stave off civil war in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election.  Even the copy of the historical marker, usually reserved for unblushing adulation, confesses that this eminent statesman was “noted for [the] Crittenden Compromise, 1860, [a] futile effort to avert Civil War and preserve the Union.”

One can speculate that if John Crittenden had managed to get his compromise through Congress in the winter of 1860-61, more people would stop to pay homage to the memory of the politician.  Rather than meandering past the austere home, thousands of people might flock to it just as they swarm to Henry Clay’s Ashland, an ostentatious mansion in Lexington where visitors are reminded that this home’s former occupant thrice orchestrated compromises that saved the Union from dissolution.  In death, just as in life, John Jordan Crittenden tends to live in the shadow of Henry Clay.  Historians often fall into the trap of comparing Crittenden to Clay, and no matter their take on the coming of the Civil War they often reach similar conclusions: at best he was a noble failure for trying to patch together an eleventh-hour compromise, at worst he lacked a moral compass for trying to push through a settlement that would have permanently prevented Congress from interfering with slavery.  Regardless, Crittenden failed and as Abraham Lincoln remarked in his second inaugural address, “the war came.”

My book, A Union Indivisible: Secession and the Politics of Slavery in the Border South, takes a different approach to John Jordan Crittenden.  While the Bluegrass politician certainly failed to win passage of his compromise package, he did organize an impressive political campaign during 1860-61 that helped keep the four crucial Border South states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri from seceding.  Crittenden kept the hope of a possible settlement alive into the spring of 1861, which prevented many white border southerners from abandoning the Union.  He built an imposing Unionist network throughout the Border South, used an array of political maneuvers at home and in Washington, D.C., and after the war commenced in April 1861 relied heavily on the might of the U.S. military, but in the end he accomplished his goal of keeping the Confederacy from swelling to fifteen states.  That in itself skewed the balance sheet of the war heavily in favor of the Union, for the Border South included a large white population, manufacturing capabilities, and natural resources that likely could have made the Confederacy too powerful for the Union to overwhelm.  The cornerstone of Crittenden’s Unionist offensive rested on the assumption that slavery would be much safer within the Union than outside of it.  Ironically, by adding the Border South to the Union ledger he also strengthened the war machine that eventually placed American slavery in its powerful crosshairs.  Crittenden disagreed with the Republican Party’s war aims, but in the end the Union endured.  So if you ever find yourself ambling down West Main Street in Frankfort and stop in front of Crittenden’s house, know that the eminent statesman who lived within was more successful than his historical marker admits.  


Michael D. Robinson is assistant professor of history at the University of Mobile.  You can read his earlier UNC Press blog post here.