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Corwin Amendment


The Corwin Amendment was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that was approved by Congress in 1861 in an attempt to avoid disunion and civil war.

On November 6, 1860, American voters elected Republican Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth President of the United States. Alarmed by what they considered to be extremist views held by Lincoln and Radical Republicans, Southerners began escalating their threats to leave the Union. On November 10, only four days after Lincoln's victory, South Carolina was the first state to act, calling for a state convention to consider secession. On December 3, 1860, when the second session of the 36th Congress convened, President James Buchanan sent the legislature a message requesting an "explanatory amendment" to deal with the secession crisis. Congressmen from both houses responded with a flurry of proposals to save the Union.

The next day, by a vote of 145 to 38, the House formed a select committee to entertain ideas to avert disunion. Known as the Committee of Thirty-three, the group consisted of one representative from each state. On December 11, Thomas Corwin of Ohio chaired the first meeting of the committee.

The Senate soon followed suit, voting on December 18, to create its own select committee, known as the Committee of Thirteen. On December 20, the same day that South Carolina seceded, Vice-president John C. Breckinridge appointed the thirteen members and the committee met for the first time. Four days later, New York Senator William Seward introduced a resolution aimed at reassuring Southerners (particularly those living in the Border States) that the incoming administration had no intentions of meddling with slavery in states where it already existed. Seward's proposal 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.

Presumably, Seward introduced this measure with the approval of President-elect Lincoln. Seward offered his proposal after meeting with his principal political advisor, Thurlow Weed, who had recently returned from an extended consultation with Lincoln in Illinois. Some historians have suggested that Lincoln authored the proposal and that Weed served as his intermediary with Seward, but evidence for that scenario remains sketchy. Weed did carry written instructions from Lincoln to Seward regarding his thoughts about compromise proposals to avoid the secession crisis, but they did not include anything explicitly similar to the measure Seward sponsored.

Over in the House, at Seward's behest, on December 18, Massachusetts Representative Charles Francis Adams offered a proposal to the Committee of Thirty-three, which was similar in intent to Seward's measure being considered by the Committee of Thirteen in the Senate. Adam's proposal read:

Resolved, That it is expedient to propose an amendment to the Constitution of the United States providing that no amendment having for its object any interference within the States with the relation between their citizens and those described in the 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.

By the time the Committee of Thirty-three approved Adam's proposal by the vote of twenty-one to three, Adams had withdrawn his sponsorship of the measure, due to his personal convictions about slavery. When Corwin submitted the committee's majority report to the full House in mid-January, he reported that the members were unable to agree on compromise solutions regarding the crucial issues of the extension of slavery into the territories and the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. The committee did, however, endorse Adam's proposal, which Corwin now sponsored.

Corwin introduced the measure on the House floor as a proposed constitutional amendment on January 21, 1861. Five weeks of debate failed to produce the necessary two-thirds majority to endorse the measure. On February 26, Corwin altered the language of the proposal, creating a more simplified version that opponents to the measure found less objectionable. The abridged version voted on by House was identical to the measure proposed in the senate by Seward back in December. A floor vote on February 27 produced a favorable majority of 123 to seventy-one, but the result did not meet the two-thirds requirement. After an evening of reflection (and probable political arm-twisting), the House reconsidered the measure the next day. This time two thirds of the members approved the proposed amendment by a vote of 133 to sixty-five. On March 2, 1861, the Senate followed suit and adopted the Corwin Amendment in the form of (House) Joint Resolution 80, by a vote of twenty-four to twelve. The official wording read:

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 Legislatures of 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, viz.: "Article Thirteen";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.

Despite the fact that the Constitution grants the chief executive with no role in the amendment process, outgoing President James Buchanan signed the measure, prematurely referred to as the Thirteenth Amendment. On March 4, Abraham Lincoln took office. During his inaugural address, Lincoln attempted to mollify Southerners, stating that he had "no objection" to the proposed amendment "being made express and irrevocable." As required by law, the new president sent the proposal to the nation's governors for consideration by the separate state legislatures on March 16. The Ohio General Assembly ratified the Corwin Amendment on May 31, 1861, but by that time the Civil War had erupted. On January 10, 1862, Maryland's General Assembly became the only other state legislature to ratify the amendment. A little more than a month later, on February 14, a constitutional convention in Illinois endorsed the Corwin Amendment, but because the ratification process specified approval by state legislatures, the Illinois approval was invalid.

No further action was taken on the proposed amendment for the next two years. With the fortunes of the Union armies improving, Rhode Island Senator Henry B. Anthony introduced a proposal to halt the ratification process on February 8, 1864. Anthony's resolution was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration. On March 31, the Ohio General Assembly rescinded its ratification of the Corwin Amendment. On May 11, the Judiciary Committee discharged Anthony's resolution but the full Senate never acted upon the measure. Technically, the proposed amendment is still pending before the state legislatures for ratification.

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