Long-time Ohio politician Thomas Corwin sponsored the Corwin Amendment in the U.S, House of Representatives in 1861 as an eleventh-hour attempt to avert the American Civil War.
Thomas Corwin was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky on July 29, 1794. He was one of six children of Matthias and Patience (Halleck) Corwin. In 1798, Corwin’s parents moved the family to a farm in Warren County, Ohio, near Lebanon. The young Corwin received little formal schooling, but he was a bright and observant youth who learned the ways of the political world from his father, who served eleven terms to the Ohio House of Representatives, twice serving as the speaker. As a teenager, Corwin drove wagonloads of supplies to General William Henry Harrison’s army during the War of 1812. His exploits earned Corwin the nickname “Wagon Boy,” which stayed with him throughout his life.
As a young man, Corwin studied law in the Lebanon office of Joshua Collett. Corwin joined the Ohio bar in 1817, whereupon he opened a law practice in his hometown. On November 13, 1822, Corwin married Lebanon native Sarah Rose, whose family was originally from Chester County, Pennsylvania. The couple had five children during their marriage.
U.S. Congressman – Part I
Corwin began his long political career in 1818, serving as Warren County prosecutor for ten years. He served in Ohio’s 20th and 21st General Assemblies in 1821 and 1822. He also sat in the state’s 28th General Assembly in 1829. In 1830, voters of Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District elected Corwin to the first of five consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He sat in the House from March 4, 1831 until May 30, 1840.
Governor of Ohio
During his tenure in Washington, Corwin joined the growing Whig Party. He resigned his seat in Congress in 1840 after Ohio Whigs nominated him as their candidate for governor. In the October election, Corwin defeated incumbent Democratic Governor Shannon Wilson by a margin of roughly fifty-three percent to forty-seven percent of the votes cast. Corwin’s term as Ohio’s fifteenth governor was mostly ineffective because the opposing Democratic Party controlled both houses of the legislature. Corwin stood for reelection in 1842, but voters returned former governor Wilson to office in a close race decided by less than one percent of the votes cast.
Despite losing the 1842 gubernatorial election, Corwin’s influence with Ohio Whigs did not diminish. In 1844, they selected him as president of the Ohio Whig convention. In the October elections, the political pendulum swung the opposite direction in Ohio, and the Whigs assumed control of the state government. The Whig-dominated General Assembly rewarded Corwin by appointing him to a seat in the United States Senate. Corwin served six years in the Senate, from March 4, 1845 to July 20, 1850. During his tenure in the Senate, Corwin staunchly opposed the Mexican-American War.
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury
On July 9, 1850, Millard Fillmore assumed the office of President of the United States after Zachary Taylor’s death. Two weeks later, Fillmore appointed Corwin as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Corwin served in that capacity from July 23, 1850 until Fillmore’s presidency ended on March 6, 1853.
U.S. Congressman – Part II
Following his stint with the treasury, Corwin retired from politics and resumed his law practice in Cincinnati, while maintaining his home in Lebanon. When the Whig Party disintegrated over issues regarding the territorial expansion of slavery in the 1850s, Corwin joined the newly formed Republican Party. In 1858, Republicans nominated Corwin to represent Ohio’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Voters elected Corwin in the fall and he served in the House from March 4, 1859 to March 12, 1861.
Committee of Thirty-three
During Corwin’s tenure in the House, American voters elected Republican Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth President of the United States on November 6, 1860. Alarmed by what they considered as extremist views of Lincoln and Radical Republicans regarding slavery, Southern states began threatening to secede from the Union. On November 10, only four days after Lincoln’s election, South Carolina was the first state to act, calling for a state convention to consider secession. Congressmen from both houses responded with a flurry of proposals to save the Union. In early December, the House formed a select committee, known as the Committee of Thirty-three, to consider compromise measures to pacify Southern secessionists. Corwin chaired the committee, which comprised one representative from each state. After several weeks of deliberations, the committee could not agree on compromise solutions regarding the issues of extension of slavery into the territories and the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. The committee did, however, submit a majority report endorsing a constitutional amendment prohibiting Congress from interfering with slavery in states where it already existed.
Corwin introduced the measure on the House floor as a proposed constitutional amendment on January 21, 1861. Five weeks of debate failed to produce the two-thirds majority needed to approve the measure. On February 26, Corwin altered the language of the proposal, creating a more simplified version that opponents found less objectionable. The abridged version voted on by the House was identical to a proposal made by New York Senator William Seward before the Senate Committee of Thirteen back in December. The Corwin Amendment read:
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.
A floor vote on February 27, 1861, produced a favorable majority, but the result did not meet the two-thirds requirement. The House reconsidered the measure the next day, and two-thirds of the members approved the proposed amendment by a vote of 133 to 65. On March 2, 1861, the Senate followed suit and adopted Corwin’s Amendment in the form of (House) Joint Resolution 80, by a vote of 24 to 12.
Congress sent Corwin’s amendment to each state legislature for consideration. The Ohio General Assembly ratified the Corwin Amendment on May 31, 1861, but by that time the Civil War had erupted. On January 10, 1862, Maryland’s General Assembly became the only other state legislature to ratify the amendment. A little over one month later, on February 14, a constitutional convention in Illinois endorsed the Corwin Amendment, but because the process specified ratification by state legislatures, the Illinois approval was meaningless. With the advent of war, the intent of the amendment was moot. Authorities largely forgot about the ratification process in 1864 when Rhode Island Senator Henry B. Anthony introduced a proposal to revive it. Anthony’s resolution went to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration. On March 31, the Ohio General Assembly rescinded its ratification of the Corwin Amendment. On May 11, the Judiciary Committee discharged Anthony’s resolution, but the full Senate never acted upon the measure. Technically, the proposed amendment is still pending before the state legislatures for ratification.
U.S. Minister to Mexico
Shortly after President Lincoln’s inauguration, Corwin resigned his Congressional seat to accept an appointment as U.S. Minister to Mexico. In that capacity, he was successful in maintaining friendly relations between the two nations throughout the Civil War despite the disruptive efforts of the Confederacy.
In 1864, Corwin resigned his post and settled in Washington, D.C. to practice law. He died there of a stroke on December 18, 1865, at the age of sixty-nine. Corwin is buried in Lebanon Cemetery, Lebanon, Ohio.