In 1861, the so-called "Crittenden Compromise" is narrowly passed by the U.S. Congress, averting the threatened secession of slaveholding southern states.
The Crittenden Compromise by Eric LippsThe Compromise, proposed by Kentucky Sen. John J. Crittenden (pictured) the previous December, is highly controversial. In its original form, it included several constitutional amendments which effectively locked in slavery forever where it then existed, made all laws in free states which interfered with the Fugitive Act or similar legislation unconstitutional, forbade Congress from interfering in the interstate slave trade or from abridging slavery in areas under federal control within a slave state, and extended the Mason-Dixon Line at 36o30' across the continent to the Pacific. Slavery was to be forever legal below that line. Only this last provision and the prohibition against federal encroachment on slavery in slave-state territory under federal control have survived, in effect cutting North America in two sections, slaveholding and non-slaveholding, and leaving the issue of fugitive slaves an open source of contention.
Also abandoned, despite furious lobbying by southern congressmen, was the provision that the Compromise could not be overturned by any constitutional amendment adopted thereafter. A nasty floor fight in the Senate over this issue nearly sank the Compromise, which was rescued only when Crittenden and Mississippi's Jefferson Davis came to an agreement that the Compromise could be altered or ended by constitutional amendment but not by any federal law or resolution.
Outgoing President James Buchanan welcomes "this peaceful resolution of the trouble between the sections of this country, which might otherwise have had to be tried by force of arms". Others warn that the issue has not been settled, and that Buchanan's trial by arms has merely been postponed. Among them is President-elect Abraham Lincoln, who declares, "A nation cannot forever endure half-slave and half-free". Lincoln's statement sets the stage for what will be a turbulent presidency.