John J. Crittenden



“The emotions of defeat, at the close of a struggle in which I felt more than a merely selfish interest, and to which defeat the use of your name contributed largely, are fresh upon me; but, even in this mood, I can not for a moment suspect you of anything dishonorable.” — Abraham Lincoln to John J. Crittenden, November 4, 1858


Kentucky statesman John J. Crittenden was born on September 10, 1786, in present-day Woodford County, Kentucky.  He graduated from the College of William and Mary and proceeded to study law under Judge George M. Bibb, beginning his practice in Russellville.  Crittenden had three wives and nine children.  In 1809, he was appointed attorney for the Illinois territory and served as an aide-de-camp to several officers during the War of 1812, the last being Kentucky’s governor, Isaac Shelby.  A strongly entrenched member of the Whig Party, Crittenden was elected to the Kentucky legislature and the United States Senate, and he was also elected governor of Kentucky in 1848. He served as attorney general of the United States under presidents William Henry Harrison and Millard Fillmore.


Crittenden had a direct impact on Abraham Lincoln’s political aspirations and policies.  During the Lincoln and Stephen Douglas Illinois senate race in 1858, Crittenden created an “October surprise” for Lincoln, when he was attributed in newspapers as supporting the Democratic candidate.  Crittenden’s support brought the old-line Whigs into Douglas’s political camp, therefore electing enough Democrats to the Illinois legislature to reelect Douglas.


Also, as heir apparent to the “Great Compromiser” Henry Clay, Crittenden attempted to craft a last-minute compromise in 1861 to avert war.  The two main points were to strictly enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and to reestablish the Missouri Compromise line in order to protect slavery in the South.  It failed in the end because of political squabbling.


Portrait of John J. Crittenden by Ferdinand Walker, ca. 1909

Kentucky Historical Society Collections