March 2, 1861 – President Buchanan Signs the Corwin Amendment

On this date in history, President James Buchanan affixed his signature to a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the 36th Congress. If ratified, the amendment – to be the 13th – would have shielded “domestic institutions of the states” (i.e., slavery) from the constitutional amendment process and from abolition or interference by Congress. Specifically, it 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.”

Over 200 resolutions dealing with slavery were proposed in the 36th Congress, most having the intent of averting a Civil War. This particular amendment was introduced by Representative Thomas Corwin of Ohio in the House of Representatives and Senator William H. Seward of New York in the Senate. The House approved Corwin’s text on February 28, 1861, and the Senate adopted it with no changes on March 2, 1861. Outgoing President James Buchanan signed it the same day.

Representative Thomas Corwin, 1831-1840 and 1859-1862

Representative Thomas Corwin, 1831-1840 and 1859-1862

Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, said of the Corwin Amendment:

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….holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Although we like to pretend this particular 13th Amendment never was passed, and/or never endorsed by Lincoln, in fact both events occurred. History professor Daniel Crofts has argued that Lincoln wished, in his inaugural address, to challenge the key Southern claim that the North was bent on destroying slavery.

Abraham Lincoln delivered his first Inaugural Address on the East Portico of the Capitol

Abraham Lincoln delivered his first Inaugural Address on the East Portico of the Capitol

Ohio and Maryland’s legislatures ratified the amendment and Illinois’ state constitutional convention did the same. Had the Civil War not intervened, the proposed 13th Amendment would likely have been ratified by the required three-quarters of the states.

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