The Corwin Amendment


James Buchanan

Summary and Definition of Corwin Amendment of 1860
Definition and Summary: The Corwin Amendment was proposed in Congress as a constitutional amendment
on March 2, 1861, by New York Senator William Seward as a simpler solution than the lengthy Crittenden Compromise. It was a short amendment to the Constitution as another last-ditch compromise effort to appease the south, protecting slavery in existing slave-states.  The Corwin Amendment was passed by Congress and submitted to the state legislatures for ratification. Due  to the outbreak of the Civil War, the Corwin Amendment was never ratified. The 13th Amendment was passed instead which completely abolished slavery.

The Corwin Amendment
James Buchanan was the 15th American President who served in office from March 4, 1857 to March 4, 1861. One of the key, but lesser known events towards the end of his presidency was the proposal of the Corwin Amendment.

Corwin Amendment: Background History
The Abolitionist Abraham Lincoln was elected President on November 6th, 1860 representing the Republican Party
. Lincoln carried all of the free-states and none of the slave-states. On December 20th, 1860 South Carolina became the First State to Secede from the Union. Many hoped that the Secession of southern states might be prevented by some form of compromise between the north and the south on the issue of slavery. The Crittenden Compromise was proposed on the December 18, 1860, a lengthy compromise that failed to find an area of middle ground making it un likely that neither the Republican party, nor the southern states, would agree.

Corwin Amendment Proposal: Thomas Corbin and William Seward
The Corwin Amendment was proposed by Senator William Seward of New York on March 2, 1861 as an amendment to the Constitution. However it was not the work of William Seward.  The amendment’s namesake was Thomas Corbin, a Republican member of the House of Representatives. Tom Corbin was chairman of the House "Committee of Thirty-three" who were tasked with devising a compromise plan or measures for reconciling the North and the South. (Nearly sixty Constitutional amendments were suggested at this time on the subject of slavery.) Tom Corbin resigned from the committee but the "Corbin Amendment" was passed on to William Seward who put  forward the proposal to Congress.

Corwin Amendment: The Text
The words or text of the Corwin Amendment are 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 labor or service by the laws of said State.

The Meaning of the Corwin Amendment
The purpose of the Corwin Amendment was to appease the south. The text of the Corwin Amendment refers to slavery with terms such as "domestic institutions" and "persons held to labor or service" and avoids using the word "slavery", following the example set at the Constitutional Convention. The meaning of the Corwin Amendment was:

  • To forbid Congress to “abolish or interfere” with slavery

  • To protect slavery by giving each state the power to regulate the “domestic institutions” (slavery) within its borders

  • To provide that “no amendment shall be made to the Constitution” that would undo the Corwin Amendment

Reaction to the Corwin Amendment: Signed by the President
Democratic President James Buchanan signed the Corwin Amendment on March 2, 1861, at the very end of his term in office. The Corwin proposal received a relatively favorable reaction and won two-thirds support in both the House and the Senate, by a vote of 24-12. The slave-holding border states of Maryland and Kentucky welcomed the amendment as did Ohio and Illinois. The Corwin Amendment was also supported by the moderates of the Republican Party, including Abraham Lincoln.

Presidential Seal


Corwin Amendment: Passed  by Congress
The Corwin Amendment was passed by Congress and, as required by the Constitution, submitted to the state legislatures for ratification. The Representatives and Senators from the 7 slave-states that had already declared their secession from the Union and vacated their seats in Congress and therefore did not vote on the Corwin proposal.

Corwin Amendment: Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address was delivered March 4, 1861 and included reference to the Corbin Amendment stating that:

"... I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable."

A few weeks before the outbreak of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln then sent a letter, acting through his secretary of state William Seward, to the governor of each state, conveying the proposed amendment, and noting that President James Buchanan had approved it. It was clear that Abraham Lincoln was satisfied with the Corwin Amendment and the idea of guaranteeing the right of slavery in states where it existed, although insisting that the federal government could "entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery."  In Lincoln's speech at New Haven, Connecticut on March 6, 1860 he also said

We think slavery a great moral wrong, and while we do not claim the right to touch it where it exists,
we wish to treat it as a wrong in the territories, where our votes will reach it."

Possible Effects of the Corwin Amendment: The 13th Amendment
The outbreak of the Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 10, 1865) prevented the Corwin Amendment from being ratified by the required number of states and to this day it remains dormant. Had the Corwin Amendment been ratified it would have become the 13th Amendment, protecting slavery instead of abolishing slavery. It is also interesting to note that the wording of the Corwin Amendment might also have prevented the adoption of the 14th Amendment that dealt with Citizenship Rights and also some of the voting rights amendments to the Constitution. Also refer to the Causes of the Civil War

Corwin Amendment - President James Buchanan Video
The article on the Corwin proposal provides an overview of one of the major issues of his presidential term in office. The following James Buchanan video will give you additional important facts and dates about the political events experienced by the 15th American President whose presidency spanned from March 4, 1857 to March 4, 1861.




Corwin Amendment
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Definition of the Corwin proposal to the Constitution in US history
The Corwin Amendment, a major event in US history
James Buchanan Presidency from March 4, 1857 to March 4, 1861
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James Buchanan Presidency and the Corwin proposal to the Constitution for schools, homework, kids and children

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