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Appointing as Attorney General Future Slavery Compromiser John J. Crittenden, with signed certification of swearing in by Antislavery Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON.
Partly Printed Document Signed as President, to John J. Crittenden. Presidential Appointment to the Office of Attorney General, Washington, D.C., March 5, 1841. Countersigned by Daniel Webster as Secretary of State, with autograph endorsement signed by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story.
Our current census finds fewer than 40 Harrison documents (including signed and unsigned letters, free franks, and clipped signatures) as president in any format, many of which are in permanent collections.
Know Ye, That reposing special trust and confidence in the Integrity, Abilities, and Learning of John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, I have nominated, and, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, do appoint him Attorney General for The United States and do authorize and empower him to execute and fulfill the Duties of that Office according to law and to have and to hold the said Office with all the powers, privileges, and emoluments thereunto of right appertaining unto him, the said John J. Crittenden during the pleasure of the President of the United States....
In Testimony whereof, I have caused these Letters to be made patent, and the seal of the United States to be hereupon affixed,
Given under my hand, at the City of Washington, the fifth day of March in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty one and of the Independence of the United States of America, the sixty-fifth.
By the President: [signed] W.H. Harrison
[signed] Danl Webster Secretary of State”
Justice Story’s Endorsement
“City of Washington – for – on this eighth day of March In the year of our Lord one thousand and eight hundred & forty one personally appeared the within named John J. Crittenden & took & subscribed the oaths prescribed by the Constitution & Laws of the United States upon his acceptance of the office of Attorney General under the within commission.
Before me Joseph Story one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the U States.
William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), ninth president of the United States, was one of the most important figures in the early westward expansion of the United States. Harrison served under “Mad” Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which ended the Northwest Indian War. After resigning from the Army in 1798, Harrison had became Secretary of the Northwest Territory, was its first delegate to Congress, and helped obtain legislation dividing the Territory into the Northwest and Indiana Territories. He then served as Territorial Governor of Indiana from 1801-1813. In 1811, Harrison fought the Shawnee tribe led by Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (also known as “the Prophet”). The Shawnees planned a surprise attack near the Tippecanoe River in Indiana, but Harrison defeated the force, earning the nickname “Old Tippecanoe” in the process. He again defeated the Shawnees with their British allies at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. Harrison was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1824.
When he was inaugurated in 1841, he was the oldest president, maintaining that record until Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. He was also the last president born before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In addition to ten children with his wife Anna Tuthill Symmes, he also fathered six children with his slave, Dilsia. Future NAACP leader Walter White descended from one of these children. Harrison gave four of the “bastard” children to his brother when he ran for president. Harrison’s death from pneumonia after 30 days in office makes his tenure the shortest of all the presidents.
John J. Crittenden (1786 – 1863) served in the Kentucky House of Representatives, the U.S. House and Senate, as Governor of Kentucky, and U.S. attorney general twice—first under William Henry Harrison and then under Millard Fillmore. Throughout his lengthy political career, Crittenden was dedicated to compromise, accommodation, and union.
In the presidential election of 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular and electoral votes, but did not reach a clear majority of the electoral college, thus throwing the election into the House of Representatives. Crittenden supported fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay, who came in fourth. Crittenden then shifted his support to Andrew Jackson. Clay, the Speaker of the House, unexpectedly led his supporters (including Crittenden) to vote for Adams. Elected to the presidency by the House, Adams appointed Clay as Secretary of State, in what many called “the corrupt bargain.” In 1827, Adams named Crittenden the U.S. district attorney for Kentucky, and in 1828, nominated him for the U.S. Supreme Court. However, Jackson’s Senatorial allies blocked Crittenden’s high court appointment, and when Jackson won the presidency, he immediately removed Crittenden as Kentucky District Attorney.
Crittenden regrouped, serving in the Kentucky House, but stepped aside several times to advance Clay’s political goals. Crittenden helped organize the Whig party, and was elected to the Senate in 1834. There, Crittenden was considered a moderate on slavery, rejecting abolitionist petitions to ban slavery in the District of Columbia but also rejecting South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s proposed ban on mailing abolitionist literature. After campaign for William Henry Harrison in 1840, Crittenden was appointed Attorney General (by the document offered here).
After Harrison died suddenly and John Tyler became president, Crittenden was among the Whigs who resigned from the Cabinet in protest of Tyler’s bank bill vetoes. Crittenden returned to the Senate in 1842, but left in 1848 to run successfully for governor of Kentucky. Arguments over slavery grew more heated as post-Mexican War territorial gains added to slave territory, leading to Northern attempts to counter by attempting to limit slavery. Rather than continuing to view slavery as Jefferson and many founding fathers did- as a necessary evil that would eventually disappear - , robust defenses of the institution as a positive good sprung from some politicians’ mouths. John C. Calhoun challenged southern states to resist northern attempts at abolition, again threatening secession. Crittenden condemned the idea, and the Kentucky state Senate reaffirmed its commitment to the Union.
In 1850, Crittenden resigned the governorship to become Attorney General for the second time, under Millard Fillmore, another slavery-friendly president from the North. In this position, Crittenden assured Fillmore that the Fugitive Slave Act was constitutional. Fillmore signed the bill, protecting the “the Great Pacificator” Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850. During the 1850s, he was dismayed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise.
Crittenden helped organize the Constitutional Union Party, running candidate John Bell against Lincoln, Douglas, and Breckenridge in the election of 1860. After Lincoln’s election, Crittenden proposed a series of six constitutional amendments aiming to placate the South by permanently protect slavery where it existed, redrawing the Missouri Compromise line of 36° 30’ all the way to the Pacific Ocean, forbidding abolition in certain cases, protecting the slave trade, compensating slave owners for costs associated with returning fugitives, and allowing slaveholders to sue anyone assisting runaway slaves. Most onerously, the “Crittenden Compromise” stated no future amendment or act of Congress could interfere with slavery. Popular in the South, it was still not enough to prevent the secession of eleven states.
After Crittenden’s compromise failed, he returned to Kentucky and attempted to prevent the state from seceding. When Governor Beriah Magoffin refused Lincoln’s requested for troops to help quell the rebellion, Crittenden remained pro-Union, even though it was against the southern-sympathizing governor’s position. Crittenden chaired a May 1861 convention, called by the Kentucky General Assembly, to decide a position, but in the absence of a full delegation (and the onset of war), it accomplished little beyond supporting the position of neutrality already established by the General Assembly and calling on the other southern states to reconsider secession.
Neutrality remained difficult, as both sides in Kentucky jockeyed for position. Lincoln reputedly claimed that while he hoped to have god on his side, “I must have Kentucky.” He wrote in a September 1861 letter to Illinois Republican Orville Browning that “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.... We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of the capital.”
It is ironic that the man who confirmed Crittenden’s Constitutional oath to the office of Attorney General was a steadfast opponent of slavery, while the two presidents (Fillmore, Harrison) who appointed Crittenden were one from the North, the other the South, were both pro (or at least sympathetic) to slavery.
Joseph Story (1779 – 1845) a Marblehead, Massachusetts, lawyer, became the youngest associate justice of the Supreme Court when he named to the bench in 1811. His book, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833), was the first major legal work on the U.S. Constitution and is still considered a touchstone of American Constitutional law. Although points of law forced him to uphold many proslavery laws, Story is most famous for his decisions in the Amistad case, which freed the illegally-captured Africans, and Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, a Virginia case regarding confiscation of Loyalist property that asserted the Supreme Court’s authority to review Constitutional issues raised in state courts. Story was a champion of protecting property rights, admiralty law, and patent law. He generally agreed with Chief Justice John Marshall, but disagreed with Marshall’s successor, Roger B. Taney, especially on the issue of slavery.
Daniel Webster (1782 – 1852) Senator Daniel Webster was an influential Whig leader from Massachusetts. He is typically grouped with the “Great Triumvirate,” along with Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, as one of the most powerful statesmen in antebellum America. He served as Secretary of State under William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, and ran thrice, unsuccessfully, for president. A staunch Unionist, his support was critical to the passage of the Compromise of 1850.
Condition and conservation report available on request.
American President: A Reference Resource, “John J. Crittenden (1841): Attorney General.”http://millercenter.org/president/harrison/essays/cabinet/207
“John J. Crittenden.” http://www.tulane.edu/~latner/Crittenden.html
“Crittenden, John Jordan, (1786 – 1863).” http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=c000912
Kenneth Robert Janken, Walter White: Mr. NAACP (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)
 Kenneth Robert Janken, Walter White: Mr. NAACP (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003) p. 3.