From the mid-1900s to modern times, the government-approved narrative has been that the South fought a war to protect slavery. This was denied by Southerners, e.g., Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Richard Taylor, E. P. Alexander, Raphael Semmes, and Northerners, e.g., George Lunt, Simon Cameron, Edward Channing, and for at least the first half of the war, U.S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln. Slavery in America had never been more secure than on the eve of the war. Congress’ July 23, 1861, resolution stated the war’s purpose was to maintain the Union. Slavery was not mentioned.
The Corwin Amendment was written and proposed by Northerners ostensibly to pacify Southern and Border State slaveholders who feared large financial losses with immediate uncompensated emancipation.
The Corwin Amendment:
Joint Resolution to Amend the Constitution of the United States.
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the following article be proposed to the several States as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which, when ratified by three-fourths of said Legislatures, shall be valid, to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution, vis .:
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.”
Approved, March 2, 1861
On March 2, 1861, the amendment was passed by a two-thirds vote of the U.S. House and Senate. Several Southern States had left the Union; thus, majority approval was by non-Southern States. Viewed by many as a final attempt to keep the Southern States in the Union, the Corwin Amendment was sent to the States for ratification.
Ohio Representative Thomas Corwin is generally credited as its author. Despite his name appearing on the amendment, Corwin was not the originator. He had served as the Republican chairman of the ad hoc Committee of Thirty-Three from whence it was introduced. The original sponsor, Charles Francis Adams (son of President John Quincy Adams), received the text from William Seward. After meeting with Republican politician and newspaper publisher Thurlow Weed, Seward introduced it to the Senate. Weed had met with Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, on December 20, 1860, to discuss the fugitive slave law and other compromise options. Not only was Weed in the loop, on December 21, Lincoln “notified Illinois Senator Lyman Trumball to expect ‘three short resolutions which I drew up, and which, on the substance of which, I think would do much good.’”
Seward wrote to Lincoln on December 26, 1860, referencing “Weed’s verbal conveyance as a resolution stating ‘That the constitution should never be altered so as to authorize Congress to abolish or interfere with slavery in the states—a clear description of the Corwin Amendment, which he presented the same day to the Republican members of the Senate’s compromise ‘Committee of Thirteen.’” Whether or not Lincoln was Corwin’s originator (as some believe), he knew it existed over two months prior to his inauguration.
The proposed amendment re-stated existing constitutional rights; Lincoln admitted he had no legal authority to interfere with slavery in the States. The South could have construed it as confirmation of Lincoln’s position regarding slavery where it existed (and opposition to expansion) or as an attempt to bribe the seceded States back into the Union. Lincoln’s acknowledgement that he had no legal jurisdiction to interfere with slavery where it existed indicates the destruction of slavery was not the casus belli.
Peace advocate, Stephen Douglas, an Illinois Democrat and architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, strongly supported Corwin. Democratic President Buchanan signed the Corwin Amendment on March 3, 1861, his last day in office. Under the Constitution, proposed amendments do not require presidential approval. Buchanan, from pro-protectionist Pennsylvania, understood his State would benefit financially if the Southern States remained in the Union.
Although the opening of hostilities minimized debate, at least two States ratified Corwin – “Ohio on May 13, 1861, and Maryland on January 10, 1862.” Furthermore, in Lincoln’s home State, the Illinois Constitutional Convention endorsed the Corwin Amendment in 1862. Ratification by three quarters of the States would have made the Corwin Amendment the law of the land, i.e., the original thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Southern States were not interested in the Corwin Amendment. Why would the slaveholding States not agree to this reaffirmation if protection of slavery were the primary goal? The answer is simple. The South’s goal was independence, that gem that so many Americans seem to have forgotten.
Sources: Paul C. Graham, “How The War Was About Slavery,” The Abbeville Institute Blog, January 26, 2015, http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/blog/how-the-war-was-about-slavery/; Memoirs of Service Afloat, by Raphael Semmes; United States at Large, Volume 12, ed. George P. Sanger, Counsellor at Law, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1863, 251. Reprinted by Dennis & Co., Buffalo, New York, August 1961, https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/36th-congress/c36.pdf ,; Union At All Costs: From Confederation to Consolidation, by John M. Taylor; Phillip W. Magness, “Abraham Lincoln and the Corwin Amendment,” Phillip W. Magness-Historian, philmagness.com, http://philmagness.com/?page_id=398 ,; “Corwin Amendment,” Slavery and the Secession Crisis, Harp Week, 2001-2008, http://13thamendment.harpweek.com/HubPages/CommentaryPage.asp?Commentary=02CorwinAmend, [The March 16,1861 issue of Harpers Weekly ran a featured article entitled ‘Two Nights in the Senate’ that gave Senator Douglas of Illinois credit for securing passage of the Corwin Amendment in that chamber.]. Author Doris Kearns Goodwin expressed the belief that Abraham Lincoln actually originated this amendment.