Disunion in the New York Times recently described Abraham Lincoln early in his presidency as a “Rookie Executive” and it was true. Lincoln had no real executive experience before becoming president, and even in his law partnership he tended to concentrate on litigation and not administration.
Yet despite his inexperience, early on Lincoln demonstrated he would be diligent in handling his executive duties. A good example is the 1861 version of the 13th amendment–or the Corwin amendment as it is often called–that had passed Congress on March 2, just before his taking office. On March 16, 1861, Lincoln dutifully forwarded this proposed constitutional amendment to the states to consider its ratification.
The Corwin amendment was dealt with in an earlier edition of Civil War Emancipation. But since it is short and simple, here again is the text: “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.“
The Corwin amendment would have given constitutional force to Abraham Lincoln’s pledge not to interfere with slavery where it already existed. When Lincoln’s letters forwarding it to the states resurfaced several years ago, some people tried to sensationalize the discovery, asserting it showed Lincoln was not the “Great Emancipator.” However, to anyone with a factual knowledge of the Civil War, it was not inconsistent with the position on slavery held by Lincoln in March 1861. To whit, that he merely wanted to prevent the institution from expanding, and even if he had opposed the amendment he still had a duty as head of the executive branch to forward it to the states for consideration.
In any case, the letters forwarding the Corwin Amendment, and the controversy that emerged when they resurfaced, are a useful reminder of where Lincoln stood on emancipation early in his first term as president. However much Lincoln found slavery personally distasteful and saw its long-term survival as inconsistent with American ideals, he was willing to continue tolerating the institution where it already existed and was not going to obstruct a constitutional amendment that might tie the federal government’s hands about slavery. Which is not to say Lincoln was enthusiastic about the Corwin amendment and neither was the nation. It was only ratified in three states (arguably two) and never came close to entering the U.S. Constitution. It would take a bloody Civil War to achieve a just resolution of the slavery controversy, even as in March 1861 some people must have hoped but not have been enthuiastic that the Corwin Amendment would settle the matter.