The Corwin Amendment was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the United States Congress on March 2, 1861. Ohio Representative Thomas Corwin offered the amendment during the closing days of the Second Session of the 36th Congress in the form of House (Joint) Resolution No. 80. The proposed amendment would have forbidden attempts to subsequently amend the Constitution to empower the Congress to "abolish or interfere" with the "domestic institutions" of the states, including "persons held to labor or service" (a reference to slavery). In particular, the Corwin Amendment was intended to prohibit the Congress from banning slavery in those states whose laws permitted it.

Offering the amendment was a last-ditch effort to avert the outbreak of the Civil War. Corwin's resolution emerged as the House of Representatives's version of an earlier, identical proposal in the Senate offered by Senator William H. Seward of New York. However, the newly formed Confederate States of America was totally committed to independence, and so it ignored the proposed Corwin Amendment.

This proposed amendment is technically still before the states for ratification, because it was submitted to the states without a time limit. Adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, ended any realistic chance of its being adopted.

Text[edit | edit source]

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.[1]

Proposal by the Congress[edit | edit source]

On February 28, 1861, the House of Representatives approved the resolution by a vote of 133–65.[2] On March 2, the United States Senate also adopted it, 24–12.[3] Since proposed constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority, 132 votes were required in the House and 24 in the Senate. As seven slave states had already decided to secede from the Union, those states chose not to vote on the Corwin Amendment.

Outgoing President James Buchanan publicly endorsed the Corwin Amendment. Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, did not oppose the Corwin Amendment: "[H]olding such a provision to now be implied Constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable."[4][5] Just weeks prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln penned a letter to each governor asking for them to support the Corwin Amendment.[6] However, Presidents play no formal role in the amendment process.[7]

Ratifications[edit | edit source]

Pursuant to Article V of the Constitution, consideration of the Corwin Amendment then shifted to the state legislatures. On May 13, 1861, the Ohio General Assembly became the first to ratify the amendment. The next to ratify was the Maryland General Assembly in January 1862. Later that year, Illinois lawmakers approved the amendment while they were sitting in session as a state constitutional convention rather than as a legislature, thus causing some to see this particular ratification as possibly invalid.[4]

Technically, the Corwin Amendment is still pending. It would need an additional 35 or 36 ratifications (depending on Illinois's ratification) in order to become part of the Constitution.

Possible effect if adopted[edit | edit source]

When viewed as an entrenched clause, the Corwin Amendment—had it been ratified—might have been construed to prohibit the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, which both abolished slavery throughout the nation and granted the Congress the power to enforce its terms. A competing theory suggests a later amendment conflicting with an already-ratified Corwin Amendment would either explicitly repeal the Corwin Amendment (as the Twenty-first Amendment explicitly repealed the Eighteenth Amendment) or been inferred to have partially or completely repealed an adopted Corwin Amendment.[8]

Corwin Amendment supporters seem to have believed it would not have changed 1860s law other than to have restricted the Congress's future powers. It further appears that supporters regarded the amendment as simply a reiteration of principles already contained in the Constitution.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. The Corwin Amendment appears officially in Volume 12 of the Statutes at Large at page 251.
  2. Congressional Globe, p. 1285
  3. Congressional Globe, p. 1403
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ghost Amendment: The Thirteenth Amendment that Never Was
  5. Text of Lincoln's first inaugural address
  6. Abraham Lincoln and the Corwin Amendment
  7. Constitutionally, there is no executive involvement in the amendment process. The Supreme Court ruled in Hollingsworth v. Virginia, 3 U.S. 378 (1798), that the President has no veto power in the example of amendments approved and sent to the States.
  8. Linder, Douglas. "What in the Constitution Cannot be Amended?". Arizona Law Review: 717. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/unamendable.html. 

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Bryant, A. Christopher (2003). "Stopping Time: The Pro-Slavery and ‘Irrevocable’ Thirteenth Amendment". Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 26: 501. ISSN 01934872. 
  • Lee, R. Alton (1961). "The Corwin Amendment in the Secession Crisis". Ohio Historical Quarterly 70 (1): 1–26. 

External links[edit | edit source]

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