The First 13th Amendment

Juneteenth Day is approaching which celebrates the abolition of slavery accomplished by the 13th amendment to the Constitution. However, few people today remember the first proposed 13th Amendment which was never ratified. In December 1860 as the Southern states were starting to succeed the Senate quickly formed a “Committee of Thirteen” to investigate possible legislative measures that might prevent the Southern states from succeeding. The House “Committee of Thirty-three” had the same objective. Out of these Committees came the “Corwin” Amendment to the Constitution which read as follows:

“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 a labor or service by the laws of said State”

The effect of the amendment was to ensure Constitutional protection of slavery as long as any state wanted to permit it. The outgoing President, James Buchanan, endorsed it and incoming President Abraham Lincoln encouraged its passage in his first Inaugural address saying that he already believed it to be implied in the Constitution. In fact, evidence indicates that Lincoln was pushing Congress to propose such an amendment behind the scenes. The Amendment passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 133-65 and the Senate by a vote of 24-12. Before the turmoil of the Civil War stopped the ratification process, Kentucky, Ohio, Rhode Island, Maryland and Illinois had ratified the Amendment after Lincoln sent a letter to every governor supporting it.

This amendment, if ratified, as it almost certainly would have been if the South had cooperated rather than succeeded, would have legally made institutionalized slavery immune to the constitutional amendment procedures and to interference by Congress. The later Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery would have legally not been permissible. Had the South simply stayed in the Union rather than succeeded they could have had explicit protection for slavery guaranteed in the Constitution along with no less than Abraham Lincoln’s and much of the North’s approval. Both the North and South have much to answer for related to the sin of slavery.

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