Key Facts & Summary:
- The Corwin Amendment also referred to as the Slavery Amendment of 1861, was a constitutional amendment passed by Congress but never ratified by the states.
- The primary objective of the amendment was to prevent the federal government from ever abolishing slavery in states where it existed at the time.
- It was hoped that the amendment would pacify states yet to cede from the Union and avert a Civil War already in the offing.
Upon Abraham’s Lincoln successful election to the Presidency in 1860, seven slaveholding states beginning with South Carolina seceded from the Union, owing to the President’s elect opposition to the institution of slavery. The states formed the Independent Confederate States of America. This was during the 16 weeks between Lincoln’s election on 6 November 1860, and his inauguration on 4 March 1861.
President James Buchanan, who was still in office at the time, pending Lincoln’s inauguration, assured the southerners that the incoming Republican President would not undermine their slave property. He, therefore, asked Congress to draft what he referred to as an “explanatory amendment” to the Constitution that would explicitly recognise state rights to allow slavery.
In response to the President’s request, a thirty-three-member committee of House of Representative under the leadership of Representative Thomas Corwin of Ohio prepared a draft and presented it to the house. The amendment would deny Congress “the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labour or service by the laws of said State.”
The amendment, designated Joint Resolution No. 80, by a vote of 133 to 65 in the House of Representatives and 24 to 12 in the Senate on 28th February and 2 March 1861 respectively. It realised the two-thirds majority requirement, despite the seven states that had already taken a decision to cede, not voting.
President Buchanan signed the amendment, even though Presidential signature or assent was not a requirement for joint resolutions such as the amendment. He hoped that his signature would help secure the support of the southern states in the ratification of the amendment. President Lincoln did not oppose the amendment once he took office, but also did not give it his specific support and transmitted the amendment to the states for their ratification. Only Ohio and Maryland followed by Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Illinois ratified it. Ohio and Maryland rescinded their actions in 1864 and 2014 respectively.
The resolution had provided that the amendment would be made part of the constitution, upon its ratification by three-fourths of the states. It further placed no time limit on the ratification process, incidentally meaning that even on this day, it can still be ratified by the states. However, such a move would be entirely out of tune with the dynamics of present-day America.
Had the amendment been ratified by the states before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, it would have in a twisted turn of history been the Thirteenth Amendment protecting slavery, as opposed to the present day Thirteenth Amendment abolishing it.
However, the amendment failed because the south did not trust the north, after decades of hostilities and debates concerning slavery. Especially as the northern states were restricting slavery in the western states and their refusal to admit new slaveholding states into the Union. It was a too little too late kind of political manoeuvre.
In a letter to Horace Greeley, Lincoln explained his reasons behind supporting the amendment as well as his position on slavery. He states,
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the coloured race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.”
“I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.”