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Why did the Corwin Amendment fail?

Why did the Corwin Amendment fail?

US Civil War

US Congress –

Misunderstandings are very common regarding the Corwin Amendment. It raises complicated issues, is easily intentionally rendered confusing, and much of its complexity depends on knowing the underlying reasons for its proposition in the context of its time. It is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that was never adopted. Furthermore, it would have shielded slavery forever from the Federal constitutional amendment process in the states where it existed and from abolition or interference by Congress.

After the election of 1860, it was clear that the southern secession movement was going to accelerate. After South Carolina declared secession, both the House and the Senate took up discussion of several compromises to prevent the crisis from escalating. The House formed a “Committee of Thirty-three” with the objective of preventing the war. On January 14,1861, The House submitted a plan that proposed an amendment protecting slavery, enforcing existing fugitive slave laws, and repeal personal liberty laws. 

The part of the proposal that was the amendment became known as the Corwin Amendment, after Thomas Corwin, its author.

Corwin was a former Whig and Republican who had previously served as Secretary of the Treasury, US Senator and Governor of Ohio, and Minister to Mexico. He was a congressman from Ohio serving as chair of the Committee of Thirty-three.

The Text of the Corwin Amendment:

 “No amendment of this Constitution, having for its object any interference within the States with the relations between their citizens and those described in second section of the first article of the Constitution as “all other persons”, shall originate with any State that does not recognize that relation within its own limits, or shall be valid without the assent of every one of the States composing the Union.”

The amendment would have protected slavery where it existed at that time (fifteen states) from being abolished on a federal level.  However, it did not address slavery in the territories.  It basically was a restatement of a highly popular belief at the time: under the Constitution the Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed. This doctrine is known as the Federal Consensus, and it was subscribed to by almost everyone in political life.  The wide spectrum of proponents included slavery defender John C. Calhoun and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Abraham Lincoln stated often that he had no intention to change the Constitution.  The 1860 Republican Party platform included this caveat. 

Southern politicians opposed its adoption.

Jefferson Davis was among those who said the proposed amendment was irrelevant because it only guaranteed the right to own slaves in the already existing states, which was already the stated policy of the incoming Lincoln administration.  However, the secessionists insisted that they had the right to move slaves into the territories, and the Corwin amendment offered no such protection. Part of the skepticism was that no part of the Constitution was permanent; by passing another amendment, as was done for example with Prohibition, Corwin could be made inoperative.

As the House took up the debate, 6 more states seceded. Initially, the proposed amendment became voted down. Then Corwin introduced alternative text, and it too was voted down. The original text was taken up again and a second vote was taken, 123-71, but it failed to reach the required 2/3 vote to pass. Finally, on February 28th,  Corwin’s own text was voted on a second time, and passed with just enough votes.

The Senate took up the proposed amendment on March 2, 1861 after its compromise plan, the Crittenden Compromise, failed.

Representative Thomas Corwin, author of the amendment
Mathew Benjamin Brady – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c10008

The Senate debated its merits until March 4. On that date, the amendment passed with exactly the needed two-thirds majority.  It was then sent to the states for ratification, but only 5 states passed it, and it stalled. These states were: Kentucky, Ohio, Rhode Island, Maryland and Illinois.

Lincoln addressed the proposed amendment in his March 1861 Inaugural Address. Lincoln said, “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” He said this knowing full well that 3/4 of the states would never ratify such an amendment, especially with seven slave states already having seceded.  Moreover, Lincoln had no say in the matter anyway, since it had been passed prior to the  inauguration and was a legacy of the Buchanan administration. 

This would have been the 13th amendment if it had passed the states’ voting. 

In theory, it remains an active bill. Exactly what would happen were it to pass given the actual 13th-15th amendments is an interesting legal debate. Three states have rescinded its ratification legally: Ohio, Maryland and Illinois.

Today, there are those who will point to the Corwin amendment as evidence that the secession crisis was not driven by slavery.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, because the amendment was even proposed shows how much of a political issue slavery truly was, and the fact that Southern leaders rejected it outright, shows they were adamant about spreading slavery into the territories. It also is commonly used as evidence that Lincoln’s support of Corwin showed that he himself was not truly dedicated to abolition. This claim is a deliberate misapprehension of the context in which it was proposed.

Why did the Corwin Amendment fail? Written by:

Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian. Who has read extensively on the Civil War. Furthermore, with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

US Civil War

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory

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Why did the Corwin Amendment fail?