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The Corwin Amendment: Promise of perpetual slavery

By Bill Ward

The concept of state sovereignty was of foremost importance as the Constitution took shape. The great patriot, Patrick Henry — Give me liberty or give me death — refused to attend a Constitutional convention, because he was afraid the formation of a central government would usurp the rights of the individual states. States’ rights was a concept held in sacred trust by the founders.

And, the popular belief that attempts by states to separate from the Union originated in 1861 is false history. In December of 1814, delegates from the New England states attended the Hartford Convention in Connecticut. The subject of the meeting: secession to protest the War of 1812. One delegate even displayed a special U.S. flag — with only five stripes. Massachusetts alone threatened secession at least four times.

New York City, in particular, believed its contributions to the national wealth far outweighed the benefits the city received from the country. The financial and commercial interests in New York, with heavy investments in the South and the textile industry, opposed Lincoln’s war policy. On January 6, 1861, New York Mayor Fernando Wood wrote a letter in which he recommended that the city consider independence from the state and the Union. Leading politicians urged Lincoln to pursue a more moderate approach, agreeing with the radical newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, to letting the “erring sisters go in peace.”

But had the “erring sisters” been allowed to go at all, a significant contributor would have been lost to the federal treasury. And that loss weighed heavily in Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts, spurring his desire to “save the Union.” He was a political animal looking for a way out of a trap.

In the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln had said, “Slavery is an unqualified evil to the negro, the white man, and the State.” But in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, Lincoln declared that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists.” That inaugural address was interesting, because in 1848, Lincoln was quoted as favoring secession, on the one hand, and later of a willingness to do anything to save the Union, on the other hand, even if that meant preserving the institution of slavery. Like many contemporary politicians, Lincoln flip-flopped on major issues for political advantage.

He made it clear that he supported the enforcement of the fugitive slave laws, and why not? As a young attorney, Lincoln had worked for slave owners to help return their runaways. But Lincoln made a comment in his inauguration address, the meaning of which might escape the casual student of history. The comment was:

“I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution which amendment, however, I have not seen has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service [slaves].

“To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Lincoln was speaking of the proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Written by northern Republicans in Congress, it also was called the Corwin Amendment, after Rep. Thomas Corwin of Ohio who introduced it in the House.

This proposed 13th Amendment read: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

Abraham Lincoln's home state of Illinois ratified the Corwin Amendment before the War Between the States broke out in 1861. It appears at 12 Stat. 251, 36th Congress. Two more State legislatures ratified it, beginning with Ohio on May 13, 1861, followed by Maryland on January 10, 1862.

The Southern states were practically handed a constitutional concession agreed to by the northern controlled congress, making slavery a permanent institution in the U.S. So, if slavery was truly the primary issue in secession, why didn't the Confederate government accept this offering instead of choosing to dig in its heels and fight for its independence?"

This exposes claims that the Union went to war in 1861 to free the slaves to be historically untrue. It also undermines claims that the South seceded solely to preserve the institution of slavery. If that had been the South’s goal, what better guarantee did it need than an unrepealable amendment to the Constitution to protect slavery as it then existed?

Read more about this amendment in the article, “Stopping Time: The Pro-slavery and ‘Irrevocable’ Thirteenth Amendment,” by A. Christopher Bryant; Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 26, 2003, available on the Internet.

The present 13th Amendment to our Constitution prohibits slavery in the U.S.

©April 2006