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Jul 03 2015

The Corwin Amendment – 1861

We have been told that the US Civil War was fought over slavery. We have been told that President Abraham Lincoln provided the moral strength necessary to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. There are other viewpoints that the South fought for economic reasons and for the right to leave a group of states that formed the central government. These voices are often ignored and shouted down with claims that they defend slavery and represent racism. While there is no doubt that slavery was an issue embedded in society at the time and contributed to the causes of the war, there is also no doubt that there were economic issues involved and eventually the question of whether or not states had the right to leave the Union. These were complex issues and were entwined with each other.

One thing we have not discussed widely is the fact that just prior to the start of the Civil War, the North side tried to avoid the conflict by offering to accept slavery, permanently. Now known as the “Corwin Amendment”, an amendment to the Constitution was drafted that would both establish slavery as an institution of society and make it permanent by disallowing any future change to the amendment. This amendment was passed by Congress on March 2, 1861 and sent to the states to be ratified.

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.

During the Presidential campaign of 1860, the political agenda of Abraham Lincoln struck fear into the southern states. He made it clear that he was intent on preventing the spread of slavery into the new territories of westward expansion. For many years, the South had been fighting a seesaw political battle with the North over economic issues, mostly centered on tariffs that had the ability to cripple the South while enhancing the North. If Lincoln was elected and enacted his agenda, the South was convinced they would never regain the ability to balance the influence of the North in Congress because as the new territories became states, they would not be allowed to embrace slavery and would side with the North on the economic issues.

The South reasoned, if slavery was to be abolished and their economy destroyed, with no hope of political compromise, then they needed to leave the Union of States. If the southern states did leave, the economy of the North would be shattered as a result, making the North intent on trying to keep the South in the Union, while hoping they would accept the steep new tariff.

When Lincoln was elected in November of 1860, it only took South Carolina a few weeks to vote for secession and leave the Union. By the end of December, the Corwin amendment had been drafted and was being presented in Republican committees. During January and February; Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas joined South Carolina in secession and the Confederate States of America was formed.

With the representatives from some of the southern states now withdrawn from Congress, the South had lost their ability to oppose new tariff legislation and on March 2, 1861, Congress passed both the Morrill Tariff, which raised tariff rates on dutiable items from 21% to 36%, an increase of 70%. At the same time, in order to prevent any more southern states from leaving the Union, the Corwin Amendment was adopted as a measure of conciliation.

On March 4, 1861, Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States. On April 12, the bombardment of Ft. Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, SC began the Civil War and the rest of the southern states seceded in short order.

If the Corwin Amendment had been ratified by the states, it would have been the 13th amendment to the Constitution, instead of the existing 13th amendment, which abolished slavery instead. The Corwin Amendment was never ratified by the states, after the events of 1861 and is still technically “on the books” waiting for ratification, which will never come.