The discovery of a letter from newly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln to the governor of Florida has generated renewed interest in Lincoln’s views toward slavery. The letter, found at the Lehigh County Historical Society in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is a form letter from Lincoln to Governor Madison S. Perry transmitting “an authenticated copy of a Joint Resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States.” On March 16, 1861, Lincoln sent the same letter to all of the governors of the states, including states that had already seceded from the Union and formed their own confederate government. What was this amendment, and what was Lincoln’s role in its attempted ratification?
In December 1860, President James Buchanan requested Congress to propose an “explanatory amendment” with regard to slavery. In the house, Ohio Representative Thomas Corwin was selected as the chairman of the committee; and in the senate, William H. Seward took the lead in sponsoring the amendment. In his correspondence during the month of December, president-elect Lincoln was adamant that there be no compromises with regard to the extension of slavery. In a meeting with Thurlow Weed, Seward’s Republican ally in New York, Lincoln offered three compromise proposals, and Weed passed this information to Seward. Upon his return to the Senate, Seward introduced three resolutions to the Senate committee. One resolution not included in Lincoln’s proposals offered that “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.” In other words, the amendment would forever guarantee the right of the Southern people to own slaves. With much debate, the amendment passed both houses of Congress on March 2, 1861, two days before Lincoln took office.
The amendment was prematurely called the thirteenth amendment. Corwin’s amendment, as it was then called, was one of three attempts to resolve the secession crisis between Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. The Crittenden plan and the Washington Peace Convention were unacceptable to Republicans because they yielded too much to the slave interests and rejected the central plank of the Republican platform, which opposed the extension of slavery.
In his inaugural address, Lincoln noted Congressional approval of the Corwin amendment and stated that he “had no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.” This was not a departure from Lincoln’s views on slavery at that time. 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. However, Southerners feared that a Republican administration would take direct aim at the institution of slavery. By tacitly supporting Corwin’s amendment, Lincoln hoped to convince the South that he would not move to abolish slavery and, at the minimum, keep the border states of Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina from seceding.
Lincoln’s March 16, 1861 letters to the governors did not endorse or oppose the proposed thirteenth amendment. They merely transmitted a copy of the joint resolution to amend the constitution. This was the first step to ratification by the states. After the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops, important border states Virginia and Tennessee, among others, seceded. The Civil War began and the purpose of the Corwin amendment was greatly reduced. However, Ohio and Maryland ratified it, and the 1862 Illinois Constitutional Convention endorsed it.
The discovery of Lincoln’s letter to the governor of Florida does not alter the historical perspective that Lincoln was willing to compromise to restore the Union before hostilities began. It also underscores Lincoln’s evolution toward emancipation. This snapshot of March 1861 shows Lincoln’s last attempt to restore the Union while maintaining his party’s platform. While personally opposed to slavery, Lincoln believed the Constitution supported it. His support of the Corwin amendment attempted to codify that belief, but the Civil War changed his opinion on presidential power. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and in 1865, vigorously worked to pass the actual thirteenth amendment, which declared slavery illegal.
John A. Lupton is the Associate Director and Associate Editor for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project.