A Union-Saving Compromise — At Last!
On February 28, in a desperate attempt to find a last-minute political compromise that might preserve the Union, the House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment that would have prevented Congress from interfering with slavery in the states where it already existed. Introduced by Thomas Corwin, a Republican from Ohio, the text simply declared:
No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress 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.
Four days later, the amendment passed the Senate. Congress was able to pass the Corwin Amendment because the amendment had nothing to do with the issue that had dominated congressional debates for the past three months — the extension of slavery into the western territories. Rather, it had to do with guaranteeing the preservation of slavery where it already existed. A two-thirds majority could be obtained in both the House and Senate in support of the amendment because no one argued that Congress even had the authority to interfere with slavery in the states.
President Buchanan supported the measure, and because abolition was not part of Republican ideology, Abraham Lincoln would even mention the amendment favorably in his first inaugural address on March 4, saying that he had no objection to its stating explicitly that the federal government would never interfere with slavery where it already existed.
To become part of the Constitution, the proposed amendment needed to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. It was quickly ratified by Ohio, Maryland, and Illinois, but the war interrupted that process, and this Thirteenth Amendment was quickly forgotten. Four years later, the United States ratified a very different Thirteenth Amendment, one that ended the institution of slavery throughout the country.
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