Most students of American history know of the war-averting compromises engineered by Henry Clay, the U.S. senator from Kentucky who may be the state’s most famous historical figure, except for Daniel Boone.
However, few may know of John J. Crittenden, another U.S. senator from Kentucky who was Clay’s protege and, like Clay, attempted to avert civil war through compromises.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has risen to national prominence, has been on a mission to revive interest in Crittenden, a man McConnell calls a forgotten statesman.
Although not a history professor, McConnell delivered a lecture Tuesday on Crittenden at Eastern Kentucky University.
Introduced by EKU President Doug Whitlock, McConnell presented the retiring university president with a framed copy of a tribute to his more than 40 years of service to Eastern that the senator had entered into the Congressional Record.
Crittenden’s oratorical talent aided both his political and legal careers, McConnell noted. His voice “poured forth like a great Niagara,” according to one contemporary account.
He also was a war hero, fighting in the War of 1812’s Battle of the Thames in Canada in which the American Indian leader Tecumseh was killed. That also boosted his political career.
In addition to serving as Kentucky governor and in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Crittenden was the only attorney general to serve separate terms for different presidents.
While Clay could be both combative in the political arena and skewer his opponents with sarcasm, even as he negotiated compromises, Crittenden was conciliatory in his personal relations.
Another reason that Clay overshadows Crittenden and was less regarded by his contemporaries as well as historians is that Clay brought about two compromises that forestalled civil war, while Crittenden’s last-ditch efforts did not.
By 1860, however, differences between the North and South over slavery could no longer be bridged by compromise, McConnell said.
Crittenden was the main organizer of the Constitutional Union Party that fielded a candidate it hoped would appeal to both North and South but who carried only border states, including Kentucky. Crittenden declined to be its standard bearer.
When states began to secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln, Crittenden proposed a series of constitutional amendments he hoped would bring the states back into the Union, or at least stem the tide of secession. But they satisfied neither the South or the North. When the war came, he succeeded in helping keep Kentucky in the Union.
Although not mentioning his frequent portrayal in the press and by his opponents as an obstructionist, McConnell says he has followed the examples of Clay and Crittenden to reach common ground with his political opponents.
In 2010, McConnell said he negotiated with Vice President Joe Biden to reach a compromise on extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. The next year, he and Biden reached a compromise to pass the Budget Control Act. This past New Year’s Eve, he and Biden were hammering out a fiscal-cliff compromise while others reveled.
Bill Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at