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The Corwin Amendment: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 The Corwin Amendment
  • 1:14 What It Says
  • 1:47 What It Means
  • 3:07 History of the Amendment
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson we will be exploring the Corwin Amendment by discussing its origins, intentions, and ultimate fate. Was it ever added to the U.S. Constitution? Find out and discover how this amendment was meant to save the United States of America.

The Corwin Amendment

In November of 1860, the people of the United States made a huge mistake. They elected Abraham Lincoln. At least, that was the viewpoint of several Southern states who believed that this new Republican president would undermine their entire way of life. At that time, slavery was the dominant political issue. Not so much slavery in the South, but slavery in the Western territories. Southern slaveholders wanted to see slavery expand into the West, thus increasing the number of slave-owners who could vote for issues that mattered to the Southern elites. Lincoln wanted to stop the spread of slavery into the West, and so these Southern states, starting with South Carolina, left the Union. Now, Lincoln was elected in November, but not sworn in until March of 1861, leaving out-going president James Buchanan with the task of trying to stop the Southern secession before it turned into all-out warfare. One of his attempted solutions was a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution known as the Corwin Amendment.

What It Says

The Corwin Amendment was named after Representative Thomas Corwin of Ohio, who sponsored the proposal in the House of Representatives. It stated the following: '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.' Basically, this said that Congress cannot abolish any institution that the states have decided is legal and acceptable.

What It Means

So how was this supposed to encourage the Southern states to stop their secession movement and rejoin the Union? There are actually two big issues being addressed here. The first is obviously slavery. The amendment doesn't directly use the word slavery because the drafters didn't want to scare off Northern abolitionists, but it does list under domestic institutions of the state persons held to labor or service. That means slaves.

The other issue, and in many ways the more important one, is the issue of federal power. Slavery was not a contentious issue simply because people thought it was morally wrong, but also because abolishing slavery would require the federal government to overrule state constitutions. Up until this point, the states were expected to essentially govern themselves with little to no federal interference. That's what made the Southern states very nervous about the Republican Abraham Lincoln. It wasn't just his opposition to slavery, it was also the Republican party's support of a stronger central government, which was something that even most Northerners opposed to some degree. The Corwin Amendment may have made it illegal to abolish slavery, but it did so by limiting the power of the federal government and upholding the sanctity of state, not national, constitutions.

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