Ohio History Journal

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Thomas Corwin and the

Sectional Crisis



Thomas Corwin viewed the sectional crisis of 1860 with

consternation but scarcely with surprise. For a dozen years this

conservative Ohio politician had warned Americans that the sectional

struggle over slavery in the territories would one day propel the

nation into a bloody civil war. In his dramatic speech to the Senate of

February 11, 1847, he had predicted that the annexation of Mexican

territory would unleash sectional forces that would tear the Union

apart. It was Corwin's fear of disunion that wedded him to the

declining Whig party. With the demise of that party-the victim of

sectional politics-he refused to join its Northern successor, the

Republican party. Corwin had little in common with such Republican

founders as Joshua Giddings, Charles Sumner, and Horace Greeley.

For him the Republicans, riding the crest of free-soil sentiment,

endangered the Union in direct proportion to their success. In 1856 he

favored Millard Fillmore and the Know Nothings because of their

censure of the Kansas agitation. However, as a partisan who had

fought Jacksonians and Jacksonian principles throughout his political

career, Corwin canvassed for the Republican John C. Fremont in

order to contribute more effectively to the defeat of James Buchanan

and the Democrats in Ohio.1

Thereafter, Corwin's Republicanism    remained unorthodox. He

accepted the Fugitive Slave Act as a national necessity. On the

prohibition of slavery in the territories he agreed with the Republican

free-soil platform; but in the Union, Corwin declared repeatedly, a

new state had the right to decide the question of slavery for itself.2 As


Norman Graebner is Stettinius Professor of History at the University of Virginia.


1. Columbus Ohio State Journal, October 31, 1856; Thomas Corwin served in the

Ohio General Assembly in the 1820s. His twelve-year term in the House of

Representatives (1829-1841) ended when he was elected governor of Ohio. From 1845

to 1851 he served in the Senate until he was chosen Secretary of the Treasury by

President Millard Fillmore. Corwin returned briefly to the House (1859-1861) until his

appointment as minister to Mexico, a post he retained until 1864. Dictionary of

American Biography, vol. IV (New York, 1930), 457-58.

2. Josiah Morrow, ed., Life and Speeches of Thomas Corwin (Cincinnati, 1896),