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Friday, January 14, 2011

COMPROMISE

I am not surprised that it was old John Crittenden (above) who offered the last real chance to avoid the violence and bloodshed of the American Civil War. He was from the border state of Kentucky, and was used to straddling fences. He had spent his entire life as a politician, devising one compromise after another. But having brought America to precipice of civil war by one compromise piled upon another, he could see no solution except by another compromise. But the unpleasant truth was and is, that a compromise is not a solution. It is a way of avoiding a solution. And for four score years America had been avoiding the solution to slavery.
From March 4, 1837, when Andrew Jackson handed over the Presidency to Martin Van Buren, until March 4, 1861 when Lincoln took the oath, eight men occupied the White House. Two of them had died while in office – William H. Harrison and Zachary Taylor. But of the remaining six - Van Buren, Tyler and Polk, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan (above) - not one of them won a second term. For two decades the American electorate was looking for something else.
That fall of 1860 the Northern Democrats nominated Senator Stephen Douglas, The Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell (but only because their first choice, John Crittenden, said he felt he was too old), the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln (above), while the Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge. Reading the election results did not seem to make anything clearer. As Bruce Catton, points out in “The Coming Fury”, “Breckenridge, the supposed candidate of the secessionists, had indeed carried 11 (slave) states, but he had lost such powerful slave states as Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri…”
But of course, the American electoral system is not merely a popularity contest. With 293 Electoral votes available, the winner in 1860 had to secure at least half – 146 1/2 votes. Douglas won 12, Bell won 39, and Breckenridge won 73. But Abraham Lincoln won 180. As Wikipedia points out, Lincoln would have still have won in the electorial college “…even if the 60% of voters who opposed him nationally had united behind a single candidate.” Still, there were many who simply refused to see any clear choice in those numbers.
In the lame duck congress, convened after the Republican victory, Senator John Crittenden (above) rose to offer the nation one more chance to avoid a bloodbath. The old man – at 73 he was the oldest man in the Senate –had crafted a course of action he was assured would placate the firebrands in the South. And all that was required were six amendments to the constitution.
First, slavery would be forever prohibited north of the Missouri border, all the way to the Pacific. But in exchange for this, black slavery would be likewise forever “protected” south of that line. Second, slavery was to be permitted on all military bases, even in Free States. Third, slavery would be allowed in Washington, D.C. Fourth, the interstate slave trade was to be unimpeded, even in the Free States. Fifth, the Federal government must compensate all slave owners for all runaway slaves. And sixth, no further amendments restricting slavery could ever be considered. This was to become the bedrock foundation document of the United States. It was called the Crittenden Compromise.
The offer of this “compromise” produced, amongst other effects, a powerful debate on the floor of the Senate, between the advocates for slavery and the sworn enemies of the institution. Republican Senator Edward Baker of Oregon, a long time close friend of President elect Lincoln, demanded to know where in the constitution South Carolina had the right to secede from the Union. He was answered by Senator Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana, described by a Republican senator as “A Hebrew with Egyptian principles.” The states, said Senator Benjamin, “…have reserved to themselves under the Constitution….every right not expressly denied to them by the Constitution”. Thus, their right to secede was to be found “…in the ninth and tenth amendments to the Constitution.”
But the “charismatic and controversial” Senator Baker disagreed, contending the constitution “…is made by the people…not the States.” The inveterate gambler then went over to the attack. Enumerating the six proposed amendments, and the Northern “sins” they were to rectify, Baker pounded home his point. “…you say we rob you; you say we intend to establish a cordon of Free States around you; you say that we are persistent in what we do on this point…you say that the difficulty seems to arise chiefly from a difference in our construction of the Constitution.” Judah Benjamin interjected, “The charge is not that Congress does it, but that the States do it.”
Baker swirled his cape in front of his opponent. “Very well,” he said. “The great champion of the South… admits that there is no ground of complaint that the Federal Government ever has attempted to interfere with the existence of slavery….But it is said that the Northern States, the Western States, in other words, the Free States, do so interfere. Again we deny it. The fact is not so. The proof cannot be made.”
Senator Benjamin (above) now thought he had his Northern foe pinned. He reminded the Senate of the raid against Harpers Ferry by John Brown. And then, he added, “A man…in Massachusetts who, in public speeches, declared that he approved of (John Brown)… and the people of Massachusetts, by an enormous majority, elected him their Governor.” Judah then charged that “…it is the desire of the whole Republican party to close up the Southern States with a cordon of Free States…”
Baker was now moving like a picador, pricking his foe, and feeding his temper. “See how gloriously we advance, step by step,” he announced. “We abandon now the charge that Congress does it; we abandon now the charge that States do it; we abandon now the charge that the individual members of the Northern and Western communities as a body desire to (do it)…but we insist tenaciously and pertinacious (insist) ….that, as a people, we desire to circle the slave States with a cordon of free States, and thereby destroy the institution of slavery…” But was that, asked Baker, a reason to destroy the union of states? “I say, yes,” blurted out Benjamin. Replied Baker, “And I say…no!”
The Republican Party rejected the compromise, disingenuously describing it as so badly written that it “…amounts to a perpetual covenant of war against every people, tribe and state owning a foot of land between here and Tierra del Fuego.” But the New York Times would later (February 6, 1861) more accurately denounce Senator Crittenden’s work because “it has too much the appearance of a device to destroy the Administration in advance of its accession to power…And when the Democrats demand its adoption by the Republicans, they demand, in effect, that they shall abdicate the government which has been committed to their hands, and put in power, not the Democratic Party, but the (Breckenridge) faction.”
In the end, none of the words mattered. The Republicans made certain the Crittenden Compromise was never officially considered by the entire Senate, even though they never offered an alternative. And when, in January, Crittenden presented his “Compromise” again, this time to the new Congress, the new Republican majority replaced it with an assertion that, as Lincoln phrased it, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” It was a fundamental point upon which Lincoln and the Republican Party were not willing to compromise.
Just short of a year after the great debate, Edward Baker, serving as a colonel in the Union Army, would die in a foolish and pointless battle at “Ball’s Bluff” in Virginia. Willie, the President’s eldest son, composed a poem in his memory. “There was no patriot like Baker, So noble and so true; He fell as a soldier on the field, His face to the sky of blue. No squeamish notions filled his breast, The Union was his theme, 'No surrender and no compromise...”
Judah P. Bejamin would later be known as “the Brains of the Confederacy.” After resigning from Congress he would become first the Confederate Attorney General, then its Secretary of War, until he was forced to resign. In 1862 he was named Secretary of State, and remained in that post until the end of the war, when he managed to escape to England. There he passed the bar and established a pofitable practice. He died in 1884, in Paris.
In a way, it was the great compromiser, John Crittenden, who suffered the most because of the war he had tried so hard to avoid. He was able to keep the war out of his own state. But one of his sons and a grandson fought for the South, while two other sons and another grandson fought for the union. The old man was exhausted by his life’s work, and died while running for re-election, in July of 1863, three weeks after the great Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. And what we remember is that for all its pain and horror, to its 600,000 dead on both sides, the Civil War gave birth to the America dream we share today. Can any of us honestly say we would have prefered an America in which John Crittenden had been succesful and the war had been avoided, all in the name of compromise?
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