Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.
The year 1861 was a dire one for the United States. In its opening months, five southern states joined South Carolina in seceding from the Union. In the recent 1860 election, the victor Abraham Lincoln hadn’t even appeared on the ballots of a third of the states in the Union. A bloody civil war loomed. In their final hours in office, President Buchanan and Congress were desperate to preserve the Union, even if it meant preserving the practice of slavery.
On March 2, 1861, two days before leaving office, Buchanan endorsed an amendment to the Constitution that had been approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives just weeks before South Carolina seceded. It read:
The following article be proposed to the legislatures of the several States as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which, where ratified by three-fourths of said legislatures, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution, viz:
Article XII. 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.
If three-fourths of the states in the Union signed the amendment, slavery would forever be tolerated by the Federal Government. Desperate to hold the Union together on the day of his inauguration, Lincoln addressed the proposed amendment:
I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution . . . has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. . . . I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.
Ohio and Maryland ratified the amendment in 1861 and 1862, respectively, far short of the three-quarters necessary to create a Constitutional amendment. Instead, the issue of slavery, and the Union, would be decided by war.
By the war’s end, another 13th amendment, this one abolishing the practice of slavery, would be ratified 145 years ago this week. Both amendments are currently on display as part of the “Discovering the Civil War” exhibit, now in at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.