On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as the sixteenth president of the United States. In the middle of his inaugural address he endorsed an amendment to the Constitution that had been passed by Congress only that morning. What would have been the first Thirteenth Amendment declared that Congress had no authority to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. Lincoln expressed his support for the so-called Corwin amendment by observing that he had “no objection to its being made express and irrevocable” (pp. 235–36).
Long ignored by historians, the “other Thirteenth Amendment” has finally been treated to a detailed analysis by historian Daniel Crofts. In Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery, Crofts sets out to achieve two goals. The first is to present the political choreography behind the amendment; the second is to explore the contrast between the popular (and, sometimes, academic) perception of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator and Lincoln’s willingness on the first day of his administration to accept the institution of slavery as a permanent [End Page 291] part of the Union in fifteen states. What has been termed the Corwin amendment (named for Ohio representative Thomas Corwin) becomes, in Crofts’s telling of the tale, the Seward amendment. In this well-researched and well-crafted narrative, Crofts argues persuasively that the proposal to declare slavery off-limits to congressional intervention was designed by Senator, and soon to be Secretary of State, William Seward. For his part, Seward’s amendment was in keeping with the Founding Fathers who had desired the eventual abolition of slavery but acted only to prevent its expansion. Crofts further explains that Seward’s proposition aligned with the 1860 Republican platform, which disclaimed any interest in or authority to interfere with slavery in the states. Seward’s intent was to offer a solution to the problem of secession at little or no cost to Republican ideology.
Crofts systematically builds the argument that the moderate wing of the Republican Party (which encompassed a majority, but not the entirety, of the party), led by Seward, wanted, needed even, to counteract the southern mantra that their party was filled with abolitionists. Since the formation of the Republican Party in 1854, many southern political leaders attempted to paint the new northern alliance as favoring slave insurrections and immediate abolition. Although Seward and Lincoln and their followers looked forward to the day the country would be rid of the institution of slavery, only a handful of Republicans could be termed abolitionists. For Seward, therefore, promoting his amendment constituted prima facie evidence that the incoming administration was willing to tolerate slavery where it already existed and that Lincoln’s administration posed no threat to slavery where it was protected by state authority.
Crofts also takes a long look at Lincoln historiography, especially historians who, in his words, “depict Republicans as virtual abolitionists” (p. 12). To that end, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery methodically and convincingly makes the point that Republicans consistently, with few exceptions, argued that they opposed the extension of slavery but had absolutely no designs on slavery in the states. In this regard, Crofts puts James Oaks’s Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery [End Page 292] in the United States, 1861–1865 (2013) in his cross-hairs and, to this reviewer, presents the stronger argument. The Abolitionist Lincoln, Crofts persuasively insists, only gradually emerged with the onset and continuance of the war.
Daniel Crofts presents in Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery the first full-scale modern analysis of the Seward/Corwin amendment. By exploring the origins of this all-important episode in the run up to the war, Crofts sheds important light on the fundamental political issue that divided the nation. One might wish he had explored the motivations of Democrats (Stephen Douglas, Robert Toombs, and James Sedden, for example) who also proposed constitutional amendments guaranteeing slavery in the South...