The First Thirteenth Amendment

On March 2, 1861, with two days left in its session, the 36th Congress rushed to get its business done. Among its actions that day was to approve a constitutional amendment to send to the states.  The amendment simply read:

‘‘Article Thirteen.

 ‘‘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.’’

A constitutional promise for Congress not to interfere with slavery where it already existed was the only amendment that could muster the two-thirds majority necessary for approval. With the congressional delegations of the Lower South now gone, Republican votes were more essential than before and this amendment, consistent with the party’s position on slavery, was the only one that could gain their support.

There was no enthusiasm in Congress for the proposed constitutional amendment of the Washington Peace convention at the Willard Hotel that had adjourned several days earlier.  It died in committee in the Senate on a 28-7 vote and the House refused to even consider the peace convention amendment.

Truth be told, there was little enthusiasm in the country for the 13th Amendment passed by Congress on March 2, 1861. It only received approval in two state legislatures (Maryland and Ohio) and a constitutional convention of dubious authority held in Illinois. It would take the deadliest war in American history and a much more just Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to settle the matter of slavery.

For the source of 1861’s 13th Amendment, also called the Corwin Amendment, see:

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
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1 Response to The First Thirteenth Amendment

  1. Mike says:

    “It would take the deadliest war in American history and a much more just Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to settle the matter of slavery.”

    If this were true, then why didn’t it take a war to settle the matter of slavery in Wisconsin, Michigan, or any of the other Northern states who peacefully abolished slavery?

    Why didn’t it take a war to abolish slavery in England, France, Spain, Denmark, etc – all of whom also abolished slavery without killing 2% of their populations.

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