William Barr can learn from John J. Crittenden AG tenure

February 8, 2019

If William P. Barr is confirmed as attorney general, he might look to one of his predecessors for how to handle things at a time of national turmoil.

Mr. Barr would become just the second person to reclaim the country’s top legal job, following in the footsteps of John J. Crittenden, who was attorney general briefly in 1841 and again from 1850 to 1853.

And like Mr. Barr, who was attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, when Crittenden returned to the job a second time, he faced a country riven with factions.

“Like Crittenden, Barr will be in a no-win situation, no matter what he does” said Damon Eubank, a historian at Campbellsville University, who wrote a biography of Crittenden. “He is going to face sharp criticism because the country is very divided today, much like it was in the 1850s.”

Roughly six weeks after Crittenden was sworn in for his second go-around, President Millard Fillmore signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as part of a compromise between Southern slaveholders and Northern abolitionists.

Under the law, the responsibility of seizing runaway slaves shifted from the states to the Office of the Attorney General the Justice Department proper wasn’t created until 1870.

Northern states passed nullification laws as an end-around, and riots broke out in Boston, where antislavery activists stormed a courthouse and forcibly freed a fugitive slave from federal custody.

Crittenden personally believed this was an issue for the states to resolve among themselves and the federal government should stay out of it, Mr. Eubanks said. But because he carried out his duty, he became one of the faces of the unpopular law.

“It wasn’t his burning passion to return runaway slaves, but it was a major duty of the attorney general and the Justice Department to take the lead on this,” Mr. Eubank said. “It’s a hot-button issue, and he gets a lot of bad press.”

Despite his ambivalence, Crittenden took a hard line in punishing Northerners who flouted the law, including pushing for treason charges against an armed mob in Pennsylvania that tried to prevent a slaveholder from recapturing his slave.

All told, 41 people were indicted for treason, the largest number ever in a single case. However, the case collapsed when the government’s star witness was revealed on the stand to be a known liar and kidnapper.

Largely consumed by the fight over fugitive slaves, Crittenden’s second term ended with the inauguration of President Franklin Pierce in 1853.

He later was selected to serve in the U.S. Senate, returning to yet another job he’d held before.

Crittenden had two sons who fought in the Civil War one for the Union, the other for the Confederacy.

Update hourly