Lincoln and the 13th Amendment (1861 version)

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.

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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4 Responses to Lincoln and the 13th Amendment (1861 version)

  1. Margaret D. Blough says:

    While the view that the Constitution affirmatively endorsed slavery was very much in the minority outside the slave states, I don’t think there was much dispute that, at the minimum, the original constitution tolerated the continued presence of slavery in those states where it already existed at the time of the Constitutional Convention and left the issue of whether or not to end slavery to each state. Individual states had already ended or begun the process of ending slavery before the Constitutional Convention. The Corwin Amendment essentially made this explicit. It also appears to be an attempt to assuage slave state fears that, as more free states joined the Union, there would eventually be enough to amend the Constitution to end slavery nationally. If indeed, all the South wanted was to be left alone, the Corwin amendment addressed that. The flat rejection of it by the states that had or were about to join the rebellion puts the lie to the “just wanted to be left alone” claim. For good or ill, the time for the Corwin Amendment, if it ever existed, had passed before it even was submitted to the states.

  2. Charles Bahmueller says:

    The (first version of the) Thirteenth Amendment, signed by Lincoln, was the only amendment ever signed by a president. It was soon passed by Lincoln’s home state of Illinois and guaranteed the legality of slavery in the South in perpetuity.

    • Hi Charles. Lincoln forwarded the Corwin Amendment (as the 1861 version of the 13th amendment is commonly known) to the states, as was his constitutional duty. However, I don’t think he ever signed it. Abraham Lincoln definitely signed the later 13th amendment, ending slavery, before forwarding it to the states, even though it did not require his signature. I think that says a lot about Lincoln’s true feelings concerning slavery.

      Don Shaffer

      • Mike says:

        Donald,

        He didn’t just forward the Corwin Amendment to the states – the idea was his from the very beginning. He explicity supported it in his first inaugural address, “”I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution . . . 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.” Then, while “holding such a provision to be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

        His true feelings toward slavery were apathetic. His solution to slavery was to forcibly deport slaves to Africa – he sat on committees for years in this very cause. If emancipation were his true goal, then why did he not fight against slavery in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland – or in New Jersey. All he cared about was power – and using that power to enrich himself. His entire political career was in his own words, “My politics are short and sweet, like the old woman’s dance. I am in favor of a national bank … in favor of the internal improvements system and a high protective tariff.”

        It was not slavery, but the tarriff and corporatism that drove the rich railroad lawyer into politics.

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