The Collapse

The Corwin Amendment

This Amendment to the Constitution was passed by 2/3 of both houses of Congress in 1861. It is still technically an active, proposed Amendment. If it were to be passed by 3/4 of the state legislatures, it would become the latest Amendment to the Constitution, however unlikely that would be.

This Amendment, largely ignored by educators today, is the prime evidence that the northern states didn’t care about the slaves as much as they did the economic conditions created by it.

The Amendment was originally proposed by one of the Senators from New York, William H. Seward, and a Representative from Ohio, Thomas Corwin, both Republicans. The Amendment itself was reflective of what most citizens at the time thought about the issue of slavery:

No amendment of this Constitution, having for its object any interference within the States with the relations between their citizens and those described in second section of the first article of the Constitution as “all other persons”, shall originate with any State that does not recognize that relation within its own limits, or shall be valid without the assent of every one of the States composing the Union.

The Corwin Amendment

You see, most people in both the North and the South felt that slavery was an issue that was an internal matter for each state to control within its own borders.

The Amendment was passed in the house on February 28, 1861 by a vote of 133 to 65, just barely above the two-thirds threshold. The Senate voted on the Amendment on March 6, 1861, passing it with a vote of 24 to 12. Soon afterward, it was sent to the states for ratification.

On March 16, 1861, Lincoln a letter to all of the governors of the states, including states that had already seceded from the Union and formed their own confederate government. In that letter, he stated that while he personally opposed to slavery, Lincoln believed the Constitution supported it. Lincoln noted Congressional approval of the Corwin amendment and stated that he “had no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” Lincoln followed the Republican platform from the Chicago convention. He believed that the major problem between the North and South was the inability to reach agreement with respect to the expansion of slavery. Lincoln did not believe that he had the power to eliminate slavery where it already existed.

Thus far, seven states have ratified the Amendment (two have since withdrawn that ratification). Those states are: Kentucky, Ohio, Rhode Island, Maryland, Illinois, and Virginia. It should be noted that Ohio withdrew its ratification in 1864, as did Maryland in 2014.

The point here is that five of the seven states that ratified this Amendment did not feel strongly enough about the abolition movement to deny a Constitutional Amendment that would have permanently secured slavery as an institution. If they were willing to do that, it is unlikely in my opinion that they were willing to go to war over it.

What the northern states WERE willing to go to war over was the profits that were being secured by having the southern states nearly completely fund the federal government, and keeping those same states as captive consumers of union manufactured goods. Protectionism at its most brutal.

The 3/5s compromise was quite useful in this regard. The south was importing African slaves as labor, but for electoral college purposes, they were only counted as 3/5 of a person. Meanwhile, the northern factories were importing the Irish as virtual slaves, counting them as full citizens for both EC and congressional representation purposes.

So the north wanted and NEEDED to keep the union together at all costs, or the economic and political fallout would have been devastating to the northern states. This is why the civil war resulted in even more power going to the Federal government, because the north was in complete control of that central government. It allowed the northern states to continue the economic control over the states for decades during the reconstruction period.

Lincoln finally decided to grab the power that presented itself. He seized power, and with the military at his back, he made himself into the dictator that so many who succumb to the power they inherit wind up becoming.

In many ways, the situation that was in place and that led to the civil war in 1861 is the same situation we see now. The major difference is that it is the cities who are taking advantage of the smaller towns and rural areas, but using the same tactics as were used in the antebellum union.

The following websites were used as references for this post, and can make for some interesting follow up reading:

The Corwin Amendment

Abraham Lincoln and the Corwin Amendment

4 replies on “The Corwin Amendment”

Thank you for providing so much detail about the past. Very interesting. I’ve been around for damn near 60 years and this was never taught in school. Guess I should read more.

IIRC, the North was generally for letting the South go. But, when they realized that the South’s lowering the cost of for ships to unload in Southern ports was going to do to monies for projects in the North the howls for stopping secession began.
In order to get the general population of the North on-board with forceful re-cession, something needed to happen where the South was seen as the aggressors … enter the Star Of The West.

DM, is this a recent study for you or something you have had a long term interest in?

Here are some sources:

Historucal analysis:
On Ft. Sumter’s Commander Anderson
Numbers 96.] FORT SUMTER, S. C., April 8, 1861.

I ought to have been informed that this expedition was to come. Colonel Lamon’s remark convinced me that the idea, merely hinted at to me by Captain Fox, would not be carried out. We shall strive to do our duty, though I frankly say that my heart is not in the was (sic) which I see is to be thus commenced. That God will still avert it, and cause us to resort to pacific measures to maintain our rights, is my ardent prayer.

I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Major, First Artillery, Commanding.

To Gustavus V. Fox [1]
Capt. G. V. Fox Washington, D. C.
My dear Sir May 1, 1861
I sincerely regret that the failure of the late attempt to provision Fort-Sumpter, should be the source of any annoyance to you. The practicability of your plan was not, in fact, brought to a test. By reason of a gale, well known in advance to be possible, and not improbable, the tugs, an essential part of the plan, never reached the ground; while, by an accident, for which you were in no wise responsible, and possibly I, to some extent was, you were deprived of a war vessel with her men, which you deemed of great importance to the enterprize. [2]

I most cheerfully and truly declare that the failure of the undertaking has not lowered you a particle, while the qualities you developed in the effort, have greatly heightened you, in my estimation.

Page 351
For a daring and dangerous enterprize, of a similar character, you would, to-day, be the man, of all my acquaintances, whom I would select.

You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort-Sumpter, even if it should fail; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result. Very truly your friend A. LINCOLN

[1] ALS, MHi.

[2] The Powhatan had been placed under command of David D. Porter on secret orders (q.v., April 1, supra). Fox’s report, April 19, 1861, on the failure of the Sumter expedition, emphasized the storm of April 12-13 and the expectation of the arrival of the Powhatan, which was to play a leading role in the attempt to relieve the fort. Fox commented with understandable bitterness, “I learned on the 13th instant that the Powhatan was withdrawn from duty off Charleston on the 7th instant, yet I was permitted to sail on the 9th, the Pawnee on the 9th, and the Pocahontas on the 10th, without intimation that the main portion—the fighting portion—of our expedition was taken away.” (OR, I, I, 11).

I have always been interested in the Federal government as it was originally intended to function. In order to understand that, you need to understand the political forces in play.
Our nation and its government today are unrecognizable in comparison to the one that existed in 1850.

Comments are closed.