John J. Crittenden: Wikis


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John Jordan Crittenden

Portrait by Ferdinand G. Falke (painted in 1909)

In office
March 5, 1841 – September 12, 1841
Preceded by Henry D. Gilpin
Succeeded by Hugh S. Legaré

In office
July 22, 1850 – March 4, 1853
Preceded by Reverdy Johnson
Succeeded by Caleb Cushing

In office
March 4, 1855 – March 4, 1861
March 31, 1842 – June 12, 1848
March 4, 1835 – March 4, 1841
March 4, 1817 – March 3, 1819
Preceded by Archibald Dixon (1855)
Henry Clay (1842)
Martin D. Hardin (1835)
George M. Bibb (1817)
Succeeded by John C. Breckinridge (1861)
Thomas Metcalfe (1848)
James T. Morehead (1841)
Richard M. Johnson (1819)

In office
September 6, 1848 – July 31, 1850
Lieutenant John L. Helm
Preceded by William Owsley
Succeeded by John L. Helm

Born September 10, 1786(1786-09-10)
Versailles, Kentucky, U.S.
Died July 26, 1863 (aged 76)
Frankfort, Kentucky, U.S.
Political party Democratic-Republican, Whig, Know Nothing, Constitutional Union
Spouse(s) Sarah O. Lee
Maria Knox Todd
Elizabeth Moss
Relations Brother of Robert Crittenden
Father of George Crittenden and Thomas Leonidas Crittenden
Uncle of Thomas Theodore Crittenden and Thomas Turpin Crittenden
Grandfather of John C. Watson
Granduncle of Thomas T. Crittenden, Jr.
Alma mater College of William and Mary
Profession Lawyer, Politician
Religion Presbyterian
Military service
Service/branch Kentucky Militia
Battles/wars War of 1812

John Jordan Crittenden (September 10, 1786 – July 26, 1863) was an American statesman from Kentucky. He twice served as United States Attorney General. He represented Kentucky in both houses of Congress and served as the state's seventeenth governor.


Early life

John J. Crittenden was born September 10, 1786 near Versailles, Woodford County, Kentucky, one of four sons of Revolutionary War veteran John Crittenden and Judith (Harris) Crittenden.[1] In 1803, he began a college preparatory curriculum at Pisgah Academy in Woodford County, then was sent to a boarding school in Jessamine County.[2]

At age seventeen, Crittenden moved to the Lexington, Kentucky home of Judge George M. Bibb to study law.[2] He began his collegiate studies at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, but became dissatisfied with the curriculum there and matriculated to College of William and Mary in 1804.[3] There he studied under St. George Tucker.[2] He completed his studies in 1806 and was admitted to the bar in 1807.[4] He briefly practiced in Woodford County, but seeing that central Kentucky was already supplied with able lawyers, he relocated to Logan County, Kentucky on the state's western frontier and commenced practice in Russellville.[2]


Military career

In 1802, Kentucky governor Charles Scott appointed Crittenden as an aide-de-camp in the First Kentucky Militia.[1] At age twenty-two, Governor Ninian Edwards of Illinois Territory appointed him attorney general and aide-de-camp for the Territory.[1] He held these positions simultaneously from 1809 to 1810.[4]

During the War of 1812, Crittenden served in the Kentucky militia under General Samuel Hopkins.[5] In 1813, he became an aide-de-camp to Governor Isaac Shelby, serving with him at the Battle of the Thames.[5][6] Following the war, the governor issued him a special commendation for faithfulness in carrying out his orders.[1] He then resumed his law practice in Russellville.[4]


On May 27, 1811, Crittenden married Sarah O. Lee at her house in Versailles.[7] Among the seven children of this union were Confederate major general George Crittenden and Union general Thomas Leonidas Crittenden. Daughter Sallie Lee "Maria" Crittenden was the mother of Rear Admiral John C. Watson.[8] Sarah Lee-Crittenden died in mid-September 1824.[9]

On November 15, 1826, Crittenden married Maria Knox Todd, a widow and daughter of Judge Harry Innes. Crittenden took Todd's three children as his own. Todd's daughter Catherine and Crittenden's daughter Sarah married brothers. Todd's daughter Catherine married her step-brother Thomas, and their son, John Jordan Crittenden III, died at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.[10]

Crittenden's third marriage was in 1853 to twice-widowed Elizabeth Moss, who was most recently the widow of General William Henry Ashley.[8][11] She was his wife until his death.[8]

Early political career

Crittenden's career as an elected official began with his tenure in the Kentucky House of Representatives, where he represented Logan County from 1811 to 1817.[4] In 1814, Governor Shelby appointed Crittenden to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by George M. Bibb; later, however, Shelby learned that Crittenden was only twenty-seven years old, three years shy of the constitutional age requirement for senators.[12] Thus, he returned to the Kentucky House, where was elected speaker over John Rowan.[13] He would retain the position from 1815 to 1817.[11]

In his capacity as speaker, Crittenden presided over a particularly tumultuous time in the legislature. In October 1816, recently elected governor George Madison died. He was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Gabriel Slaughter. Slaughter immediately made two extremely unpopular appointments, and quickly fell out of favor with many Kentuckians. A group of legislators, led by John C. Breckinridge, pointed out that the Kentucky Constitution provided only that the lieutenant governor would serve as governor until a new gubernatorial election was held and a qualified successor was chosen. Slaughter, they claimed, was only the "acting governor." The group presented a bill to the House that called for new elections. The bill was defeated, but Crittenden had supported it.[14]

Crittenden's support of a new election was both popular and politically expedient. When the Senate term of Martin D. Hardin, one of Slaughter's unpopular nominees, expired in 1817, the Kentucky General Assembly chose Crittenden to fill the vacancy.[15] Though he was the youngest member of the body, he served as the second-ever chairman of the newly created U.S. Senate Committee on Judiciary.[2][16] He was also a member of the Committee on Naval Affairs.[15] During his term, he introduced legislation to reimburse and indemnify persons who were fined under the 1798 Sedition Act.[16] He found state politics more interesting, however.[17] This fact, coupled with increased financial responsibilities incurred by the birth of his third and fourth children, prompted his decision to resign his seat on March 3, 1819.[18]

Return to legal practice

After leaving Congress, he moved to Frankfort, Kentucky to attract more legal clients and be nearer the center of the state's political activity.[16] Among his clients after moving to Frankfort were former Presidents Madison and Monroe, future Vice-President Richard Mentor Johnson, and future governors James T. Morehead, John Breathitt, and Robert P. Letcher.[19] During this period, he collaborated with Henry Clay in defending Charles Wickliffe, son of Robert C. Wickliffe.[19] Wickliffe was charged with the murder of the editor of the Kentucky Gazette.[19] Crittenden argued that the slaying was self-defense, and Clay delivered a passionate closing argument.[19] The jury returned a verdict of "not guilty" only minutes after the case was submitted to them.[19]

In January 1820, Crittenden and John Rowan were chosen to help resolve Kentucky's boundary dispute with Tennessee. The boundary was supposed to run along the line at 36 degrees, 30 minutes of latitude, but when Dr. Thomas Walker surveyed it, he erroneously marked the line farther south. Crittenden and Rowan proposed either that the "Walker Line" remain the boundary from the Cumberland Mountains to the Tennessee River and Tennessee would compensate for the error west of the Tennessee River, or that the boundary be reset at 36 degrees, 30 minutes throughout. Tennessee's commissioners rejected both proposals, asking instead that the Walker Line be accepted east of the Tennessee River and a more southerly line west of it, with reciprocal agreements between the states to honor existing land grants. Crittenden was inclined to accept the offer, but Rowan was not. The Kentucky commissioners proposed that the matter be submitted to arbitration, but Tennessee refused. In a report to the General Assembly, Crittenden recommended that Kentucky accept the Tennessee proposal. The legislators were swayed by Crittenden's report, and the articles of agreement were signed on February 2, 1820.[20]

Crittenden was elected to the board of trustees for Transylvania University in 1823, possibly due to lobbying by Henry Clay.[21] A year later, the faculty of the university awarded him an honorary doctor of laws.[22] Crittenden also served as a trustee and attorney for the Kentucky Seminary in Frankfort.[22]

Crittenden supported Clay in his unsuccessful presidential bid in the 1824 election.[17] When John Quincy Adams won the election, however, Crittenden supported the administration.[16] Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State, and Clay was prepared to recommend Crittenden to replace him as chief counsel in Kentucky for the Second Bank of the United States, but the bank chose not to hire a replacement.[19]

Later political career

Crittenden was drawn back into public service by the Old Court-New Court controversy. Though he had served as president of the Bank of the Commonwealth since its formation in 1820, Crittenden publicly identified himself with the Old Court supporters in April 1825. In the legislative election of 1825, friends called on Crittenden to seek election to the state House of Representatives. Many believed that he was the only Old Court supporter that commanded enough respect to win one of the two seats allotted to Franklin County, a bastion of the New Court. When Crittenden conceded to run, New Court supporters nominated the state's Attorney General Solomon P. Sharp and Lewis Sanders, a prominent lawyer. Crittenden and Sharp were elected to the two seats.[23]

In the early hours of the morning of November 7, 1825, the very morning the legislature was to convene, Sharp was assassinated. Charges were made that Old Court supporters had instigated the murder. Crittenden tried to blunt these charges by introducing a resolution condemning Sharp's murder and offering $3,000 for the murderer's capture. When assassin Jereboam O. Beauchamp was apprehended, it became clear that the motivation for the killing was personal, not political. (Beauchamp's wife had married him on the condition that he kill Sharp, who had refused to claim the child he had fathered with her previously.) Despite this, Crittenden refused a request to represent Beauchamp in his murder trial because he wanted to avoid any implication in the matter.[24]

Elizabeth Moss, Crittenden's third wife

The court controversy dominated the legislative session. Crittenden joined the Old Court majority in the House in passing a measure to abolish the New Court. The bill was killed in the Senate however, by the tie-breaking vote of Lieutenant Governor Robert B. McAfee. Crittenden later served on a committee of six to resolve the conflict, but to no avail. He was unwilling to accept a solution whereby all the justices resigned from both courts, and the governor would appoint a reorganized court made up equally of Old Court and New Court supporters. This position cost him the support of some New Court partisans that had voted for him in the previous election, and he was not returned to the House in 1826.[25]

Crittenden supporters sought to make him the Whig Party nominee for governor in the election of 1828. Though his nomination was all but certain, Crittenden declined the opportunity, fearing that his association with Clay, who was losing popularity in the state, would cost his party the election. Instead, he threw his support behind Thomas Metcalfe, who went on to carry a very close election over Democrat William T. Barry. Crittenden instead sought another term in the Kentucky House, but was again denied the seat.[26]

President Adams appointed Crittenden as United States district attorney in 1827.[4] In 1828, Adams nominated him to replace Kentuckian Robert Trimble as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, but the Senate refused to confirm him.[2] President Andrew Jackson removed Crittenden from his post as district attorney in 1829 because of his association with Clay and his opposition to Jackson's financial policies.[17]

Following his removal by Jackson, Crittenden was elected to the Kentucky House via a special election.[16] He served as Speaker of the House for his entire term.[27] In 1830, he was the Whig nominee to replace John Rowan in the Senate.[28] Secretly, the party wished to nominate Henry Clay, giving him a springboard from which to launch another presidential campaign, but it was unknown whether he would be able to secure enough votes for confirmation; it was decided that Crittenden would be the nominee, and if the voting favored the Whigs by a large enough margin, Crittenden would withdraw and allow them to confirm Clay instead.[29] The Democrats countered successively with Richard Mentor Johnson, John Rowan, Charles A. Wickliffe, and John Breathitt.[28] None of them polled more than sixty-four of the sixty-nine votes needed for confirmation.[28] Crittenden garnered sixty-eight votes on fourteen different ballots, but he refused to vote for himself because he wanted Clay to be the nominee.[28] Some of Crittenden's supporters, however, refused to vote for Clay, and the seat was left vacant.[30]

The following year, a clear majority of the House of Representatives were pledged to Crittenden for the open Senate seat. However, Clay allies pressured Crittenden to step aside and allow Clay to be the Whig nominee.[30] Crittenden obliged, and Clay was elected by a margin of nine votes over Richard M. Johnson.[31] After managing both the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of Richard Aylett Buckner and the campaign to help Clay win Kentucky in the 1832 presidential election, Crittenden retired from the General Assembly in 1832.[27][32]

In 1834, Kentucky governor James T. Morehead appointed Crittenden Secretary of State.[16] The following year, he returned to the United States Senate as a Whig and served from March 4, 1835, to March 3, 1841.[4] He was critical of President Jackson's Indian and banking policies, and opposed the financial measures of Martin Van Buren.[16]

Crittenden supported William Henry Harrison in the 1840 presidential election.[17] Harrison won the election, and Crittenden resigned from the Senate to accept an appointment as Harrison's Attorney General.[17] Harrison died shortly into his term, and Crittenden joined the other Whigs in his cabinet by resigning rather than serve under John Tyler.[17]

Daguerreotype of John J. Crittenden, c. 1846. By Matthew Brady.

Crittenden was appointed and subsequently elected to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Henry Clay and served from March 31, 1842, to June 12, 1848.[4] During this period (27th Congress and 28th Congress) he served on the U.S. Senate Committee on Military Affairs.[4] He opposed the annexation of Texas and did not support the Mexican War[17] He also discouraged animosity with Great Britain over the boundary of the Oregon Territory.[17]

Governor of Kentucky

Henry Clay hoped Crittenden would again back him for president in the 1848 election, but Crittenden concluded that Clay was not a viable candidate and threw his support behind Kentuckian Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party.[17] This decision caused a permanent rift between the two friends.[17] Crittenden resigned his Senate seat in 1848 to run for governor of Kentucky, believing that this would help Taylor win in Kentucky.[16] He canvassed the state campaigning for both himself and Taylor, and defeated Democrat Lazarus W. Powell.[5][33] He resigned his Senate seat to assume the governorship.[17]

During Crittenden's term, he gave strong support to superintendent of public education, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, who would come to be known as the "Father of public school system in Kentucky."[11] In response to Crittenden's call for financial support for the improvement of public education, the General Assembly passed a common school law on February 26, 1849.[34] This law established guidelines for administering the common schools for several public officials.[34] The Assembly also reserved tolls from the Kentucky, Green, and Barren rivers for education, and passed a two percent property tax to fund the state's schools.[34]

Governor Crittenden also persuaded the Assembly to call a constitutional convention to revise or replace the state's outdated constitution.[5] He ordered the refurbishing of the state penitentiary, which had been damaged by a fire, and called for an extensive state geological survey.[34] Finally, he advised the creation of a sinking fund to retire the state's debt.[34]

Second term as attorney general

Vice-President Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency upon Taylor's death and offered Crittenden the post of Attorney General.[17] Crittenden accepted the offer and resigned the governorship in 1850.[4] His most significant opinion rendered during his term was that fugitive slave laws should be considered constitutional.[17] He served until 1853.[4]

Return to the Senate

Crittenden was again elected to the Senate in 1854. During his tenure, he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This issue led to the breakup of the Whig Party, and Crittenden joined the Know Nothing Party in 1856. Two years later, he aligned with the Constitutional Union Party and supported John Bell for president in the 1860 presidential race.[17]

Crittenden also continued his legal career throughout his years of public service. In 1854, he was the lead defense counsel in the murder trial of one Matt F. Ward. Crittenden successfully defended Ward in 1854 through an assertion that “a man has a right to carry arms; I am aware of nothing in the laws of God or man, prohibiting it. The Constitution of Kentucky and our Bill of Rights guarantee it. The Legislature once passed an act forbidding it, but it was decided unconstitutional, and overruled by our highest tribunal, the Court of Appeals.” As noted by Saul Cornell, “Ward's lawyers took advantage of the doctrine advanced in Bliss and wrapped their client's action under the banner of a constitutional right to bear arms. Ward was acquitted.”[35] There was a tremendous public outcry when Ward was found not guilty, and a public meeting passed resolutions calling for Crittenden's resignation from the Senate.[16]

Civil War

Though he did not support all of Abraham Lincoln's ideas, Crittenden desired to keep the states united. To that end, he proposed the Crittenden Compromise in December 1860. The terms of the Compromise would have restored the Missouri Compromise line and extend it to California as a line of demarcation between slave and free territories. It would have further guaranteed that slavery would remain legal indefinitely in Washington, D.C. and that slaveholders would be reimbursed for runaway slaves.[17] Also, it denied Congress any power to interfere with the interstate slave trade or with slavery in the existing Southern states and made perpetual the fugitive slave law and three-fifths compromise to the Constitution. But Republicans, especially president-elect Abraham Lincoln, rejected it and it never came to a vote. Crittenden then tried to salvage his plan by recommending to the full Senate that it be submitted to the people in referendum, but a majority of the Republicans in the Senate again voted against the measure.

John J. Crittenden in his elder years

Crittenden returned to Kentucky in early 1861, attempting to persuade his home state to reject the overtures of fellow southern states and remain in the Union. On May 27, 1861, he chaired a convention in Frankfort, Kentucky to decide the state's course in the war. He was successful in rebuffing the secessionist forces, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election in June of that year.[17]

Crittenden's next compromise, the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution, was adopted by Congress on July 22, 1861, immediately after the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run, Congress gave official definition to the object of the war: the war was prosecuted on the part of the federal government not to conquer or subjugate the Southern States, that is, not to reduce them to provinces, nor to interfere with slavery in those states; but to preserve the Union and to defend and maintain the Constitution and the laws, "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." [Congressional Globe, July 22, 1861] The resolutions were repealed in December.

Throughout his term, Crittenden opposed the war, generally, but specifically made stands against the Emancipation Proclamation, the military campaign in Kentucky, and the use of slaves as soldiers in the war.[17] He was a candidate for reelection to the House at the time of his death in Frankfort, Kentucky on July 26, 1863.[4] His last words were "Let all the ends thou aimest at be thy country's, thy God's, and truth's"[8] He is interred at the State Cemetery in Frankfort.[4]

Crittenden was torn by loyalties during the Civil War, with one son, Thomas, leaving to join the Union and the other, George, enlisting with the Confederate States of America.[17] He was also uncle of Congressman Thomas Theodore Crittenden of Missouri and of Union General Thomas Turpin Crittenden.

The town of Crittenden, Kentucky and Crittenden County, Kentucky are named for him.[36]



  1. ^ a b c d Howard, p. 64
  2. ^ a b c d e f Taylor, A Leaf Upon a Torrent
  3. ^ Kirwan, p. 10
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Congressional Biography
  5. ^ a b c d NGA Biography
  6. ^ Hatter, p. 53
  7. ^ Kirwan, p. 16
  8. ^ a b c d Hatter, p. 55
  9. ^ Kirwan, p. 45
  10. ^ Kirwan, pp. 64–65
  11. ^ a b c Harrison, p. 240
  12. ^ Kirwan, p. 30
  13. ^ Kirwan, p. 31
  14. ^ Kirwan, pp. 31–32
  15. ^ a b Kirwan, p. 33
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i Howard, p. 65
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r "John Jordan Crittenden" in American Law Encyclopedia
  18. ^ Kirwan, pp. 35–36
  19. ^ a b c d e f Kirwan, p. 38
  20. ^ Kirwan, pp. 40–41
  21. ^ Kirwan, p. 41
  22. ^ a b Kirwan, p. 42
  23. ^ Kirwan, pp. 52– 58
  24. ^ Kirwan, p. 60
  25. ^ Kirwan, pp. 61–62
  26. ^ Kirwan, pp. 79–81
  27. ^ a b Levin, p. 114
  28. ^ a b c d Kirwan, p. 89
  29. ^ Kirwan, p. 68
  30. ^ a b Kirwan, p. 90
  31. ^ Kirwan, p. 91
  32. ^ Kirwan, pp. 93–94
  33. ^ Lee, John Jordan Crittenden
  34. ^ a b c d e Howard, p. 66
  35. ^ Cornell, Saul (2006). A WELL-REGULATED MILITIA — The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 147–149. ISBN 978-0-19-514786-5.  
  36. ^ [1]

Further reading

External links

United States Senate
Preceded by
Martin D. Hardin
United States Senator (Class 2) from Kentucky
Served alongside: Isham Talbot
Succeeded by
Richard M. Johnson
Preceded by
George M. Bibb
United States Senator (Class 2) from Kentucky
Served alongside: Henry Clay
Succeeded by
James T. Morehead
Preceded by
Henry Clay
United States Senator (Class 3) from Kentucky
Served alongside: James T. Morehead, Joseph R. Underwood
Succeeded by
Thomas Metcalfe
Preceded by
Archibald Dixon
United States Senator (Class 3) from Kentucky
Served alongside: John B. Thompson, Lazarus W. Powell
Succeeded by
John C. Breckinridge
Legal offices
Preceded by
Henry D. Gilpin
United States Attorney General
Served under: William Harrison, John Tyler

Succeeded by
Hugh S. Legare
Preceded by
Reverdy Johnson
United States Attorney General
Served under: Millard Fillmore

1850 – 1853
Succeeded by
Caleb Cushing
Political offices
Preceded by
William Owsley
Governor of Kentucky
1848 – 1850
Succeeded by
John L. Helm
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William E. Simms
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Kentucky's 8th congressional district

1861 – 1863
Succeeded by
William H. Randall
Honorary titles
Preceded by
George M. Bibb
Most Senior Living U.S. Senator
(Sitting or Former)

April 14, 1859 - July 26, 1863
Succeeded by
Henry Johnson


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