Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Ghost Amendment: The Thirteenth Amendment that Never Was

Ghost Amendment: The Thirteenth Amendment that Never Was Article describing a pro-slavery constitutional amendment proposed by the American Congress in 1861.

From the site:

When the 36th Congress adjourned on March 3, 1861, it was anyone's guess whether the United States would continue to exist as a single nation. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, seven Southern states had seceded. Four others would soon join them. As the candidate of the new Republican Party, Lincoln had championed the power of the federal government to exclude slavery from territories that were not yet states, a power that the slave states saw as a dagger aimed at the heart of their "peculiar institution."

Attempting to mollify the slave states, the lame-duck President James Buchanan (picture at right) asked Congress to propose an "explanatory amendment" (his words) to the Constitution which would explicitly recognize slaves as property and the right of slave-owners to keep their human property anywhere on American soil. Although this would do nothing more than restate existing law, as expressed in 1857 in the Supreme Court's explosive Dred Scott decision, a special House committee of 33 members under Representative Thomas Corwin of Ohio (picture below at left) dutifully, if unenthusiastically, set about drafting the proposed amendment, their numbers steadily depleted by the departure of Southern members whose states had seceded.

In a stunning feat of linguistic legerdemain, the Corwin committee delivered to the House floor a draft amendment to protect slavery that never mentioned the words "slave" or "slavery" at all! But then, neither did the original Constitution. Significantly, the proposed amendment did not address the burning issue of moment: the power of Congress to bar slavery from territories that were not yet states.

The amendment passed the House as Joint Resolution No. 80 on February 28 by a vote of 133 to 65, which was 2/3 of the members present. In the subsequent parliamentary wrangle over whether that met the Constitution's requirement of two-thirds of the House, opponents of the amendment lost. On March 2, the Senate acted in favor of the proposed amendment by a vote of 39 to 5, with anti-slavery Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio attempting to derail it -- or at least to demonstrate his disgust for it -- by asking unanimous consent to vote first on a bill relating to guano deposits. When the final vote came, however, Wade supported the amendment.

2 comments:

Michael Walter said...

Thank you for posting this excerpt from my "Ghost Amendment" web page. However, I did an injustice to Senator Benjamin Wade who, in fact, voted against HR 80 on third reading (Congressional Globe, March 2, 1865, p. 1403). Somehow I must have misread his vote on some other matter as a vote for the main resolution. The error has been corrected.

Michael Walter said...

Ben Wade's vote wasn't the only thing I misread: The Congressional Globe report mentioned in my previous post was, of course, for March 2, 1861, not 1865, as I wrote it.