Did Lincoln Really Free the Slaves?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Several versions of the bill that abolished slavery were written before he signed the 13th Amendment as we know it today.

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“ARTICLE IV. Congress shall have no power to prohibit or hinder the transportation of slaves from one State to another, or to a Territory in which slaves are by law permitted to be held …

“ARTICLE V.Congress shall have power to provide by law, and it shall be its duty so to provide, that the United States shall pay to the owner who shall apply for it, the full value of his fugitive slave in all cases when the marshal or other officer whose duty it was to arrest said fugitive was prevented from so doing by violence or intimidation, or when, after arrest, said fugitive was rescued by force, the owner thereby prevented and obstructed in the pursuit of his remedy for the recovery of his fugitive slave under the said clause of the Constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof …

“ARTICLE VI. No future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles; nor the third paragraph of the second section of the first article of the Constitution, nor the third paragraph of the second section of the fourth article of said Constitution and no amendment shall be made to the Constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress any power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any of the States by whose laws it is, or may be allowed or permitted.”

Did you get all that? The Crittenden Compromise, responding to what it described as “serious and alarming dissensions” in the country, offered to make slavery of the “African race” explicitly and permanently part of the U.S. Constitution, so that no future Congress could ever undo it where it existed. Still, as compromises often go, it failed to attract support outside the political dead center. On one hand, President Lincoln’s Republican Party had campaigned on the idea of leaving slavery alone in the states where it already existed while blocking its extension further into the territories. So, right away, the Republican members of the Committee voted against it.

On the other hand, the Crittenden Compromise stopped short of a full embrace of the Dred Scott decision by resurrecting the Missouri Compromise, which, in his (long and confusing) opinion for the Court in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had ruled unconstitutional as a violation of slave-owners’ property rights. As a result, the two Deep Southerners on the committee didn’t think the honorable John Crittenden had done nearly enough to protect their constituents’ interests in the territories (and, if the expansionists among them had had their way, the Caribbean, too). Thus they refused to support it.

On Dec. 30, 1860, the Committee of Thirteen reported its impasse to the Senate. In a telegram back home, Robert Toombs, a member of the committee from Georgia who would go on to serve as Confederate Secretary of State, blamed the failure of the Crittenden Compromise on “black Republicans.” “I tell you, upon the faith of a true man,” Toombs wrote, “that all further looking to the North for security for your constitutional rights in the Union ought to be instantly abandoned. It is fraught with nothing but ruin to yourselves and your posterity.” 

The Corwin Amendment 

As the winter rolled on, so, too, did another version of a potential 13th Amendment—this time in the House. It was known as the Corwin Amendment for Rep. Thomas Corwin of Ohio, though, as historian Eric Foner points out in his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, it had been “originally drafted by” Lincoln’s incoming secretary of state, William Seward, the former senator of New York. The Corwin Amendment proposed a diluted version of the Crittenden pledge not to interfere with slavery in any state where it existed—essentially a reprint of the Republican Party platform of 1860. Its language reeked of evasion and weakness, however: 

“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress 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 Corwin Amendment was to be the anti-13th Amendment. Instead of abolishing slavery, or even calling it out by name, it referred vaguely to “domestic institutions” and “persons held to labor or service,” while attempting to close the door on any future amendment authorizing Congress to “abolish or interfere” with slavery in the states. While to us it reads like an outrageous sell-out, it was, at the time, a perfect illustration of Republicans’ calculating efforts to place responsibility for any pending war on the shoulder of secessionists while enticing those slaveholding states that had yet to depart to remain in the Union.