Congressional Ambivalence – July 1861

With the passage of July 9 resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives absolving the Union army of capturing fugitive slaves and the introduction of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion Bill in the U.S. Senate on July 16, the opponents of slavery in Congress were on the offensive. Yet while Congress took tentative steps toward emancipation in July 1861, and would take a major step the next month with the passage of the First Confiscation Act, ambivalence toward a war to free the slaves was still on display that summer in both houses of Congress.

A good example of this equivocation came toward the end of July, in the wake of the First Battle of Bull Run, when on July 25, 1861, Congress passed the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution. Indeed, the resolution was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by John J. Crittenden. He generally is best known to history for his eleventh-hour attempt in late 1860 to engineer a sectional compromise to forestall secession, the main provision of which was to resurrect the old Missouri Compromise line of 36 degrees, 30 minutes northern latitude and apply it in the western territories and any future territory acquired by the United States. The compromise, which in essence was a series of constitutional amendments, failed to pass Congress, and although there was some attempt to revive a similar compromise during the Washington Peace Conference of February 1861, the effort clearly failed to stem secession in the Lower South. Crittenden returned to his home state of Kentucky at the end of his Senate term in March 1861, where he was much more successful in preventing it from joining the Confederacy.

Crittenden reluctantly accepted election to the U.S. House in 1861 because being over seventy (he was born in 1787), he wanted to retire from public life. But having accepted his House seat, he threw himself into the business of the special session, especially shoring up in the Unionist position in the border states, which he saw as connected with keeping emancipation from becoming a Union war aim. Crittenden had voted against the July 9 resolution and on the day following the Union debacle at Bull Run/Manassas, he introduced a resolution to put Congress on record as supporting only a war for Union, not for the end of slavery. The resolution read:

That the present deplorable civil war has been forced on the country by the disunionists of the southern States, now in arms against the Constitutional government, and in arms around the the capital; that in this national emergency, Congress, banishing all feelings of mere passion or resentment, will recollect only its duty to the whole country; that this war is not waged on their part in any spirit of oppression, or for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, or purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of those States, but to defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several States unimpaired; and that as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.

While not explicitly mentioning slavery, it is unquestionably what John J. Crittenden meant by “the rights or established institutions of those States.” Obviously, Crittenden hoped the rebellion in the South could be put down without destroying the peculiar institution there or in the loyal slave states. Enough of his colleagues apparently agreed with the Kentuckian for the resolution to pass the House on July 22 and the Senate on July 25, 1861 (where it was introduced by future president Andrew Johnson).

Interestingly, since the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution passed the House by a vote of 121 to 2, it is obvious that many members voted in favor of it and the July 9 resolution absolving the army of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act (which had passed 99 to 53). Obviously, they either did not see the resolutions’ contradictions, ignored them, or like many Americans before the Civil War favored non-interference with slavery but were loath to force anyone to take part in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. A further year of war, which would make the horrible losses at Bull Run/Manassas on July 21, 1861, seem small by comparison, would do much to end this ambivalence and harden the feelings of more white Northerners against slavery. But in Summer 1861 they clung on to their ambivalence concerning the peculiar institution.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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