In an effort to pacify Southern states that were showing serious signs of seceding from the Union, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate passed the first 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1861 that would have made slavery binding and permanent in many states.
Now referred to as the Corwin Amendment because its ratification was stalled by the start of the Civil War, that first 13th Amendment states:
"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."
Fortunately for most of the black people who are living in the U.S. today, that amendment was replaced by the more familiar 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865, which abolished slavery.
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But, what many people fail to realize, what I didn't realize, is that the Corwin Amendment can still become law if two-thirds of the states decide to ratify it even today. There is no statute of limitations on that amendment, and there has been little movement directed at taking it off the books.
I was living quite happily in my sense of freedom before local history buff Yvonne Giles shared that bit of information with me. It was not something I wanted to hear.
Giles began to take a deeper look into the 13th Amendment because we will mark the 150th Anniversary of its ratification in December, she said. And when she did, she was surprised by what she found.
Some historians believe President-elect Abraham Lincoln was involved in the creation of and passage of the Corwin Amendment. Reportedly, he endorsed it and sent letters to states asking that they ratify it as well.
His desire, he said, was to keep the union intact.
The sponsors of the Corwin Amendment were from Northern states, including the bill's namesake, Rep. Thomas Corwin of Ohio, and then Sen. William H. Seward of New York, who would later become Lincoln's Secretary of State.
"The whole Northern faction, of whom I would have thought was against slavery, where most of the states had abolished slavery, threw us under the bus to keep the Southern states in the union," Giles said.
Apparently it didn't work.
Only Ohio, Maryland and maybe Illinois ratified that first 13th Amendment. Around that time, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas bid the union farewell and had no desire to get involved with the resolution.
Strangely, in 1965, more than a century after the resolution passed, a faction in Texas, led by Republican Henry Stollenwerck, created a resolution to ratify the Corwin Amendment. It was sent to a committee where it met a quiet death.
Because the amendment is dangling out there somewhere, it can be brought up and ratified at any time. The 27th Amendment was submitted to the states for ratification in September 1789 and became law in May, 1992, more than 200 years later.
No one believes that will happen with the "ghost" 13th Amendment, as some call it. If it does, be assured I will not go peacefully.
Giles, president of the First African Foundation Inc., will talk about the "forgotten" amendment as she introduces Robert Bell of the Kentucky Humanities Council's Chautauqua program on March 27 at a free presentation. Bell is a charter member of the 12th United States Colored Heavy Artillery Regiment Reactivated and a life member of Camp Nelson Heritage Foundation.
Bell's presentation of the "Rev. Newton Bush: Freedom at a Terrible Price," is sponsored by the First African Foundation Inc., and highlights the story of Bush, who survived an ambush of black soldiers near Simpsonville on Jan. 25, 1865.
An 80-man unit of the 5th U.S. Colored Calvary was herding 900 head of cattle to Louisville when they were attacked from the rear by Confederate guerillas. Twenty-two men died in the ambush, some 20 more were wounded and six later died of their wounds. A historic marker has been placed in the area.
After the war, Bush farmed for a while but later became a minister. He died on May 1, 1925, and is buried in Frankfort's Green Hill Cemetery.
"It is OK to remember Selma," Giles said. "It's OK to remember the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. But we should also remember the people who lived 100 years before the modern civil rights era.
"This event will give a picture of what our ancestors dealt with," she said.
And maybe we all can join in an effort to get the Corwin Amendment off the books completely so there won't be any need to worry about it being brought up again. That would go a long way in honoring those people who fought for freedom but never fully experienced it.