The Corwin Amendment was a proposed amendment to the US Constitution introduced in March 2, 1861 as an attempt to end the Civil War. The text is as follows:

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.

"Persons held to labor or service" is obviously referring to slavery. But I notice that the terminology before that is "domestic institutions thereof, including…", which sounds like it might have covered "domestic institutions" other than slavery. For instance, I imagine it might have possibly covered matters like marriage or child labor.

Did those who proposed, discussed, or ratified the Corwin Amendment suggest that the use of the term "domestic institutions" was intended to apply to more than just slavery?

  • 2
    The wording makes it sound like it was intended to apply to pretty much anything, but someone wanted to make really clear it included "persons held to labor or service".
    – Jontia
    Feb 21, 2019 at 10:26
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    @Jontia Given the circumstances for proposing the amendment, it's absolutely clear that it was intended in no uncertain terms to apply to slavery. My question was whether or not consideration was given to the other things it might have applied to. Feb 21, 2019 at 15:51
  • "domestic" as in "local" within the authority of the state separate from the other states perhaps? Feb 21, 2019 at 20:46

1 Answer 1


It is not clear, but I'm skeptical that the Fourteenth Amendment, in particular, would have been allowed under the Corwin Amendment, even if modified to exclude slavery.

The Wikipedia article you link includes this line:

The contentious debate in the House [right before they approved the amendment and sent it to the Senate] was relieved by abolitionist Republican Owen Lovejoy of Illinois, who questioned the amendment's reach: "Does that include polygamy, the other twin relic of barbarism?" Missouri Democrat John S. Phelps answered: "Does the gentleman desire to know whether he shall be prohibited from committing that crime?"

So, even in the moment, they were aware of this ambiguity, and chose not to clarify the text (also, their politics were just as polarized and toxic as ours are today). At a minimum, I imagine the Corwin Amendment would have been interpreted to include state laws in the immediate penumbra of slavery. We can conjecture that, if slavery had nevertheless been abolished state-by-state (which may or may not be wishful thinking), the Amendment might have extended to miscegenation laws, and by extension to the Fourteenth Amendment, which was used as a rationale for striking down said laws in Loving v. Virginia.

The Fourteenth Amendment was an unprecedented expansion of Constitutional obligations upon the states. Before this point, states had been widely understood to be semi-sovereign, in an arrangement not entirely dissimilar to the European Union today (but with many important differences). Given the context in which the Corwin Amendment would have been ratified, I find it hard to believe that a modified Fourteenth Amendment would have been Constitutional in this alternate history. But then, there might not have been the political will for it in the first place, if we imagine that the Civil War was prevented.

On the other hand, we should recognize the rather extraordinary level of circumlocution the Founders used around slavery. The word "slavery" first appears in the Constitution in the Thirteenth Amendment, when it is banned, yet numerous clauses in the original text refer to the practice indirectly. The Corwin Amendment was obviously mimicking this style. In fact, the Corwin Amendment as adopted was substantially more direct than the original proposal:

No amendment of this Constitution, having for its object any interference within the States with the relations between their citizens and those described in second section of the first article of the Constitution as "all other persons", shall originate with any State that does not recognize that relation within its own limits, or shall be valid without the assent of every one of the States composing the Union.

It is also possible that "domestic institutions" was intended more as a political rationale than as a concrete set of policies (i.e. it's just the "states' rights" argument in different clothing). If so, then it did not mean anything and was merely a fig leaf for the protection of slavery. Of course, after enactment, it might have been interpreted differently from the original intent.

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