Dictionary of American Biography, Vol IV, 1930.
CRITTENDEN, JOHN JORDAN (Sept. 10, 1787- July 26, 1863), lawyer, statesman, one of the four sons of John and Judith (Harris) Crittenden, was of Welsh descent on his father's side and of French Huguenot descent on his mother's. His father, a major in the Revolution, the year after the treaty of peace was signed emigrated to Kentucky, settling in Woodford County. Here, near Versailles, John J. Crittenden was born. He was sent to Jessamine County in 1803-04 to be prepared for college, having as school-mates John C. Breckinridge and Francis P. Blair, Sr.. He early developed a liking for the law and began its study with George M. Bibb, living in his home at the time. Finishing his course at William and Mary College in 1807, he returned to Woodford County where he first began his practise. Central Kentucky was well supplied with excellent lawyers, however, and Crittenden left for the recently opened western part of the state, settling at Russellville in Logan County. He soon became the best-known lawyer in that section, and in 1809 was appointed attorney-general for the Illinois Territory, holding the position for a year. The approach of the second war with Great Britain led him into military service. He was aide-de-camp to Gen. Sam Hopkins in some operations against the Indians; then (1812) he was appointed by Gov. Charles Scott to a similar position in the 1st Kentucky Militia. In 1813 he was appointed aide-de-camp to Gov. Isaac Shelby and was present at the battle of the Thames, receiving the special commendation of the governor for his faithfulness in carrying out orders.
Crittenden's war service was coincident with the beginning of his political career. In 1811 he was elected to the legislature to represent Logan County, and was reelected successively six times, being chosen speaker of the House in 1815 and 1816. When in 1817 a vacancy in the United States Senate developed, he was chosen to complete the term. He took an active part in the affairs of the Senate, assuming early his life-long role of champion of the downtrodden and defenseless, but left the Senate at the expiration of his term in 1819, believing that his interests and greatest happiness lay in Kentucky, where his private fortune was yet to be made. During the next sixteen years his activities were identified entirely with Kentucky, and it is probable that this was the happiest period of his life. He removed to Frankfort, where his business before the courts could best be served, and here and in the surrounding counties his name became associated with many important trials. He was generally engaged by the defense and generally won his case. He was always in great demand for the defense in murder trials. One of his first public services after returning from the Senate was in connection with the boundary dispute between Kentucky and Tennessee. In 1820 he and John Rowan were appointed to treat with the latter state, but the negotiations failed, principally because the two Kentucky commissioners could not agree. The radical developments that had their climax in the Old and New Court struggle aroused Crittenden's conservative character, and, espousing the Old Court, he ran for the legislature in 1825. He was defeated by Solomon P. Sharp, whose assassination on the eve of the meeting of the legislature necessitated a new election. Crittenden ran again and won. Four years later he was elected again and was reelected successively for the next three terms. Throughout these four years (1829-32) he was speaker of the House, and three times he was elected without opposition.
The presidential election of 1824 saw the beginning of Crittenden's active support of Henry Clay, which was to continue for the next quarter of a century. After Clay had been eliminated and the election had gone to the House of Representatives, Crittenden favored Jackson, though in no decided fashion. On the election of Adams he became the President's staunch supporter and received as a reward (1827) the appointment of United States district attorney for Kentucky. Knowing that Crittenden would be removed by President Jackson in 1829, the former's friends persuaded Adams to nominate him for the United States Supreme Court, but a majority of the Senate, supporting Jackson, refused to let the nomination come up for ratification before Mar. 4, 1829, and so the appointment was never made. When Jackson became president he promptly dismissed Crittenden from the district-attorneyship. In 1834 Crittenden became secretary of state of Kentucky under Gov. James T. Morehead.
In 1835 he was again elected to the United States Senate for a full term of six years, and for the remainder of his life he remained a national figure, being connected with the federal government in some capacity almost all the time. In the Senate he opposed Jackson's bank policy and Van Buren's financial schemes; and in the campaign of 184o he spoke from one end of Kentucky to the other in favor of Harrison, whom he affectionately referred to in his correspondence as "Old Tip." In December 1840 the Kentucky legislature reelected Crittenden to the Senate, but he soon resigned to accept from President Harrison the position of attorney-general. Immediately on assuming office he was sent to New York despite his protests, to aid the federal government in preventing a breach with Great Britain over the McLeod trial. He saw Gov. William H. Seward and secured from him a promise to pardon McLeod immediately if he should be convicted. This was Crittenden's only service of note as attorney-general and he insisted that it was an encroachment upon the duties of the secretary of state. Harrison's death one month after he had assumed the presidency placed at the head of the government John Tyler, whose refusal to support the Whig bank policy brought confusion to the party. Unable to agree with Tyler, Crittenden resigned on Sept. 11, 1841, together with all the other members of the cabinet excepting Webster.
Having given up a six years' term in the Senate to serve his party, Crittenden now after six months was left without an office. On his return to Kentucky he was welcomed at a public dinner at Maysville. His Woodford County friends, mindful that his private fortune had dwindled during his public service, bought at a cost of $17,000 the farm on which he had been born, and presented it to him. Kentucky elected him to the Senate again in 1842, to fill the position Clay had resigned, and he was reelected for the full term beginning Mar. 4, 1843. He now took a prominent part in the discussions on the Texan and Mexican question and on the Oregon boundary dispute. While earlier he had rejoiced to see Texas win her independence, he now strongly opposed her admission into the Union. He was equally opposed to forcing the issue with Great Britain on the Oregon question. Later when the joint occupation agreement was repealed, he insisted that England be given at least two years' notice. In this instance as well as in all other dealings with foreign nations he stood for a conservative, peaceful course of action.
In the campaign of 1844 he loyally supported Clay and stood with him against the annexation of Texas. On the defeat of the Whigs, Crittenden opposed the joint resolution admitting Texas into the Union. Shortly thereafter when Gen. Taylor was attacked by the Mexicans on the Rio Grande and President Polk asked for a declaration of war, Crittenden was skeptical as to the justice of the cause of the United States. Having long stood for peace and friendship with Mexico and South America he saw in this war a great calamity. When his government entered the struggle he was willing to support it with men and money, but he wished to send commissioners along with the army to offer peace with every blow. Throughout the war he kept up a voluminous correspondence with Gen. Taylor on military affairs, now and then interspersed with political matters. As early as 1847 presidential candidates were being discussed. Some of Crittenden's friends suggested his own name but he received the idea coolly, and led Taylor on in his ambitions to secure the Whig nomination. Clay, he was sure, could not possibly be elected if nominated, but he felt that Taylor might win. Clay, hearing of Crittenden's stand, wrote him in September 1847 for an avowal of his position, and received a confirmation of it. Thereafter Clay never communicated with Crittenden until reconciliation came on the former's deathbed. Crittenden felt very keenly the loss of this long-standing and cherished friendship. Taylor after his election visited Frankfort and offered Crittenden his choice of the cabinet positions, none of which he accepted, refusing largely out of respect for Clay's feelings.
In the meantime Crittenden had in 1848 resigned from the Senate to run for governor of Kentucky, believing that only with his assistance could the Whigs carry the state. In November he won Kentucky for Taylor and was himself elected. In less than a year Taylor died, and Fillmore on assuming the presidency offered Crittenden the post of attorney-general, which he now accepted. During an illness of Webster in 1851 he acted as secretary of state. At the end of Fillmore's term Crittenden returned to Kentucky to resume his law practise, but in January 1854 he was elected again to the United States Senate. He saw with much concern the country torn over the slavery question and drifting toward war. He had always, with Clay, been actuated by the hope that slavery might eventually disappear, and had in 1836 been one of the vice-presidents of an anti-slavery society which James G. Birney was promoting. But he at no time embraced the abolition cause or showed patience with abolitionists. He decried the reopening of the slavery debate in the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and felt that a great mistake had been made when the Missouri Compromise was superseded. He opposed the Topeka constitution as irregular and held the Lecompton constitution to be a fraud. He believed that the South could not wish to lend its support to statehood for Kansas, since that would inevitably increase the Northern majority in Congress. He stood for any course of action that would bring peace and compose the slavery turmoil. His position on slavery in the territories was one of congressional non-intervention. With the downfall of the Whig party he came out in support of the Know-Nothings, advocating restriction of the privileges of aliens, especially with regard to their rights to the public lands. In the presidential election of 1860 he supported the Bell and Everett ticket, although he had entertained a good opinion of Douglas since his refusal to support the Lecompton constitution.
Perhaps the most solemn and the greatest effort of Crittenden's life came during his last three years. The Union had always been almost a passion with him, and as governor in 1848 he had said, "The dissolution of the Union can never be regarded-ought never to. be regarded-,as a remedy, but as the consummation of the greatest evil than can befall us" (Coleman, post, I, 333). The excitement over Lincoln's election produced melancholy forebodings in him. In Buchanan's message to Congress in December 1860 he saw some hope of a solution, though he did not agree with the President that there was no power in the national government to deal with the seceded states. In December he introduced in the Senate the famous "Crittenden propositions," restoring by constitutional amendment the Missouri Compromise line and guaranteeing the protection of slavery in the District of Columbia against congressional action. He saw his compromise defeated in the Committee of Thirteen, and he saw with bewildered amazement the uncompromising attitude of radical senators whose course he believed would deliberately destroy the Union. He even found great difficulty in getting the opportunity to present petitions to the Senate favoring the compromise measures. On Jan. 3, 1861, he introduced a resolution calling for a referendum on his propositions, feeling, as many have felt since, that his compromise would have been overwhelmingly supported by a popular vote. Later he sought to secure the adoption of the program of the Washington Peace Conference, but failed utterly.
Finding himself checked by a determined group of hostile radicals in Congress, he returned to Kentucky to keep his native state from seceding. On Mar. 26, 1861, he addressed the legislature and sought to show the utter folly of leaving the protection of the federal Union to join the weak and untried government of the Confederacy. On Apr. 17, five days after the Fort Sumter bombardment, almost dazed by the quick war movements, he made an address in Lexington in which he still counselled Kentucky to remain in the Union and to refuse to take part in a war she had neither promoted nor desired, but had tried to avert. This was the neutrality which the state adopted a month later. He was a member of the futile conference, May 10, between three Bell and Douglas representatives and three Breckinridge men to decide on some course of united action for Kentucky. On May 4 he was elected a delegate to a Border Slave State convention which met in Frankfort on May 27 and was made chairman. The convention called upon the seceded states to reexamine their position, and counselled moderation on the part of the North.
In June, Crittenden was elected to the special session of Congress meeting in July. Having failed to prevent the war, he now as a member of the House gave all of his efforts to controlling its purpose. On July 19 he introduced resolutions declaring that the war was not for the conquest or subjugation of the South or to interfere with the established institutions of a state, but "to de fend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several state; unimpaired." He measured the subsequent act, of the Federal government by this standard an( soon found many things of which he could no' approve. He opposed the dismemberment of Virginia, the confiscation acts, the enlistment of negro troops, the Emancipation Proclamation and the military regime in his native state, which was bringing about arrests, banishments, and interference with courts, elections, and trade. He was preparing to run for reelection to Congress when lie died in Frankfort in 1863, not yet completely divorced from his sympathy for the national government.
Crittenden was married three times: first, in 1811, to Sally O. Lee, a daughter of Maj. John Lee of Woodford County; second, in 1826, to Mrs. Maria K. Todd, a daughter of judge "Hary" Innes; and third, in 1853, to Mrs. Elizabeth Ashley, who survived him. He had altogether five sons and four daughters. In the Civil War one son, George B. Crittenden, joined the Confederacy, to his father's great sorrow, and another, Thomas L., became a major-general in the Federal army.
Crittenden was never a profound lawyer, but he was one of Kentucky's greatest advocates at the bar. He loved political activities, was intensely honest in his opinions and dealings with people, and had feelings so tender that he could never forgive himself for offending a friend or losing one.
[The records of Crittenden's life are voluminous. Besides the contemporary material in newspapers and in official sources, the Crittenden Papers are in the Lib. of Cong. No critical life of Crittenden has been written, but Mrs. C. Coleman, The Life of John J. Crittenden (2 vols., 1871), is a valuable source. Short sketches may be found in R. H. and L. Collins, Hist. of Ky. (1874) ; and in Lawyers and Lawmakers of Ky. (1897), ed. by H. Levin; R. M. McElroy, Ky. in the Nation's Hist. (1909), is also valuable.] E, M. C.