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Crittenden, John J.

Born: 1786-09-10 Woodford County, Kentucky

Died: 1863-07-26 Frankfort, Kentucky

Born into a Kentucky planter family, John J. Crittenden studied law in Lexington and graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1807. He first practiced law in his home county of Woodford but soon moved to Russellville. Ninian Edwards appointed Crittenden the first attorney general of the Illinois Territory in 1809 and he won election to the Kentucky General Assembly in 1811, where he remained until 1817 - serving as speaker during his final term. Also in 1811, he married Sarah O. Lee, with whom he had seven children. Sarah died in 1824, and Crittenden married Maria K. Innes Todd in 1826, with whom he had two more children. Maria died in 1851, and Crittenden married his third wife, Elizabeth Moss Ashley in 1853.

A brief service in the War of 1812 heightened Crittenden's political standing, and he was offered a U.S. Senate seat in 1814 but had to decline because he was not yet of legal age to occupy it. He finally assumed a Senate seat for one term from 1817 to 1818, after which he moved to Frankfort where his law practice became exceptionally prosperous. He served again at various times in the state legislature between 1825 and 1832, was appointed district attorney by John Quincy Adams in 1827, but lost the office in 1829 with the election of Andrew Jackson. Governor James T. Morehead appointed him Kentucky's secretary of state before Crittenden returned to the U.S. Senate in 1834, which he left briefly in 1841 to serve as William Henry Harrison's attorney general, but came back in 1842 after resigning his office due to Harrison's death. He remained in the Senate as a Whig until 1848, where he opposed the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War. He successfully ran for Governor of Kentucky in 1848 and resigned in 1850 to become Millard Fillmore's attorney general.

Crittenden returned to the Senate in 1854, assumed the role of compromiser, and supported John Bell's 1860 presidential campaign. Following Abraham Lincoln's election, he introduced the "Crittenden Compromise" which sought to avert the secession crisis by restoring the Missouri Compromise line for existing states, allowing new states to decide their slave status through popular sovereignty, and preventing Congress from permanently abolishing slavery. The Compromise failed and Crittenden returned to Kentucky in 1861, where he helped keep his state from joining the Confederacy. He soon returned to Congress as a representative, where he endorsed conservative war aims for the North. He died while campaigning for reelection in Frankfort.

Thomas E. Stephens, "Crittenden, John Jordan," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 5:740-42; Albert D. Kirwan, John J. Crittenden: The Struggle for the Union (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1962).