Washington Convention’s Proposed Constitutional Amendment

On February 27, 1861, the Washington Convention at the Willard Hotel finally adjourned, its work completed. It left a proposed constitutional amendment for consideration by Congress that it hoped would become the framework of a new sectional compromise.  Its proposed 13th Amendment contained seven sections each dealing in some way with slavery.

Section One extended the old Missouri Compromise of 36° 30′ to all existing territorial areas of the United States, with slavery permitted south of the line and prohibited north of it.

SECTION I. In all the present territory of the United States north of the parallel of 36° 30′ of north latitude, involuntary servitude, except in punishment of crime, is prohibited, In all the present Territory south of that line, the status of persons held to involuntary service or labor, as it now exists, shall not be changed; nor shall any law be passed by Congress or the Territorial Legislature to hinder or prevent the taking of such persons from any of the States of this Union to said Territory, nor to impair the rights arising from said relation but the same shall be subject to judicial cognizance in the Federal courts, according to the course of the common law. When any Territory north or south of said line, within such boundary as Congress may prescribe, shall contain a population equal to that required for a member of Congress, it shall, if its form of government be republican, be admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, with or without involuntary servitude, as the constitution of such State may provide.

Section 2 required that all future territorial acquisitions by the United States must be approved by a majority of U.S. Senators from the slaveholding and a majority of U.S. Senators from the non-slaveholding states.

SEC. 2. No Territory shall be acquired by the United States, except by discovery and for naval and commercial stations, depots, and transit routes, without the concurrence of a majority of all the Senators from States which allow involuntary servitude, and a majority of all the Senators from States which prohibit that relation, nor shall Territory be acquired by treaty, unless the votes of a majority of the Senators from each class of States hereinbefore mentioned be cast as a part of the two-thirds majority necessary to the ratification of such treaty.

Section 3 essentially prohibited the U.S. Congress from legislating on the issue of slavery.

SEC. 3. Neither the Constitution nor any amendment thereof shall be construed to give Congress power to regulate, abolish, or control, within any State the relation established or recognized by the laws thereof touching persons held to labor or involuntary service therein, nor to interfere with or abolish involuntary service in the District of Columbia without the consent of Maryland and without the consent of the owners, or making the owners who do not consent just compensation, nor the power to interfere with or prohibit Representatives and others from bringing with them to the District of Columbia, retaining, and taking away, persons so held to labor or service; nor the power to interfere with or abolish involuntary service in places under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States within those States and Territories where the same is established or recognized; nor the power to prohibit the removal or transportation of persons held to labor or involuntary service in any State or Territory of the United States to any other State or Territory thereof where it is established or recognized by law or usage, and the right during transportation, by sea or river, of touching at ports, shores and landings, and of landing in case of distress, shall exist; but not the right of transit in or through any State or Territory, or of sale or traffic, against the laws thereof. Nor shall Congress have power to authorize any higher rate of taxation on persons held to labor or service than on land. The bringing into the District of Columbia of persons held to labor or service, for sale, or placing them in depots to be afterwards transferred to other places for sale as merchandise, is prohibited.

Section 4 prohibited state authorities from interfering in the recovery of fugitive slaves (i.e., no personal liberty laws).

SEC. 4. The third paragraph of the second section of the fourth article of the Constitution shall not be construed to prevent any of the States, by appropriate legislation, and through the action of their judicial and ministerial officers, from enforcing the delivery of fugitives from labor to the person to whom such service or labor is due.

Section 5 forever prohibited U.S. involvement in the international slave trade.

SEC. 5. The foreign slave-trade is hereby forever prohibited; and it shall be the duty of Congress to pass laws to prevent the importation of slaves, coolies, or persons held to service or labor, into the United States and the Territories from places beyond the limits thereof.

Section 6 mandated that future amendments to the U.S. Constitution could not change existing amendments dealing with slavery unless all states agreed.

SEC. 6. The first, third and fifth sections, together with this section of these amendments, and the third paragraph of the second section of the first article of the Constitution, and the third paragraph of the second section of the fourth article thereof, shall not be amended or abolished without the consent of all the States.

Section 7 provided that slaveholders unable to reclaim their human property because of mob action would be compensated for its value by the federal government.

Congress shall provide by law that the United States shall pay to the owner the full value of his fugitive from labor, in all cases where the marshal or other officer, whose duty it was to arrest such fugitive, was prevented from so doing by violence and intimidation from mobs or riotous assemblages, or when after arrest such fugitive was rescued by like violence or intimidation, and the owner thereby deprived of the same, and the acceptance of such payment shall preclude the owner from further claim to such fugitive. Congress shall provide by law for securing to the citizens of each State the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.

The problem with this proposed constitutional amendment was it at best had lukewarm support. Even the convention was badly split on the key part of the amendment, Section 1, which only passed by a vote of 9-8. And as shall be seen, although Congress quickly took up the proposed amendment they eviscerated it before passage and referral to the states. Finally, as Adam Goodheart discusses in yesterday’s Disunion blog in the New York Times, northern public opinion, as Lincoln’s inauguration grew close, moved more and more away from further compromise with the South and toward preparations for war. Clearly, by early 1861, a workable and sufficiently popular sectional compromise on slavery was no longer possible and clearly slavery was the key issue underlying the looming conflict.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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