Ohio History Journal




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),



230                                                OHIO HISTORY


late as 1858 Corwin denied privately that he was a Republican. To

Thomas B. Stevenson of Cincinnati he confided that he was not a

"Know Nothing, or a Know any thing." "Never dream," he said

"that I am of any sect in religion, or party in politics."3 Still, he

assured a Morrow, Ohio, audience in August 1858, that he would vote

the Republican ticket. He liked, he admitted, "the anti-slavery prin

ciples which is all there is in their creed." Such indifference to Re

publican dogma disturbed Ohio's Republican editors and led the Co-

lumbus Ohio Statesman to observe: "Tom Corwin tried to do the im-

possible thing.... [T]o reconcile the mildest and most diluted form of

National and Constitutional principles with the sectional fundamen-

talism of the Black Republicans is a hopeless task."4

If Corwin lacked orthodoxy, he was still valuable political property.

During August 1858, his friends at a Republican convention in

Morrow failed to modify the party's platform but managed

nevertheless to secure Corwin's nomination for Congress. The

Democratic Ohio Statesman rejoiced "to see the Black Republican

party solemnly condemn itself by the nomination of a man who

publicly reviles it as a traitorous faction..."5 Having devoted years

to his private law practice, Corwin would again delight the House of

Representatives and Republican audiences everywhere with his great

good humor. Some hoped that he might help to allay the growing

sectional controversy.

During the weeks of intense acrimony which followed John

Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859, Corwin struggled to

defend the Republican party against the charge of radicalism. At a

Republican meeting in New York on October 31 he condemned

Brown as a "spector of insanity and treason," accusing him of

causing more trouble than a 400,000-man Italian army landing at

Norfolk. But Brown, he insisted, was not the responsibility of the

Republican party. What drove Brown "insane" was the Democratic

repeal of the Missouri Compromise line in 1854. In subsequent New

York addresses Corwin appealed for obedience to the Fugitive Slave

Act. For those who insisted that they could not obey an unrighteous

law Corwin suggested two alternatives-exile or the grave.6 The New


3. Thomas Corwin to Thomas B. Stevenson, undated (1858), The Papers of Thomas

B. Stevenson, Cincinnati Historical Society (hereafter cited Stevenson Papers).

4. Columbus Ohio State Journal, August 7, September 1, 1858; Columbus, Ohio

Statesman, August 13, 1858. Joshua Giddings headed the list of those Republicans

disturbed by Corwin's refusal to accept Republican principles. See Joshua Giddings,

History of the Rebellion: Its Authors and Causes (New York, 1864), 430-31.

5. Columbus Ohio Statesman, August 18, 1858.

6. Cincinnati Daily Gazette, November 3, 1859; Cincinnati Daily Commercial,

November 4, 1859; Morrow, Life and Speeches of Corwin, 87-88.

Thomas Corwin 231

Thomas Corwin                                            231


York Post wondered why the popular Ohioan dwelt on doctrines so

foreign to the Republican party.7

The House of Representatives that Corwin reentered in December

1859, beset by party and sectional feuds, remained unorganized for

two months. Emotions ran deep; applause and hisses echoed from the

galleries. Corwin admitted that he scarcely recognized it as the

Congress of the United States. One senator wrote that "every man in

both houses is armed with a revolver-some with two-and a bowie

knife." Members argued over slavery and John Brown, with

occasional ballots for speaker. Southerners villified John Sherman,

the Republican candidate, as an abolitionist because he had joined

other Congressional Republicans in endorsing Hinton Rowan

Helper's anti-slavery tract, Impending Crisis of the South (1857).

Disunion and civil war, so long a terrible apprehension, had suddenly

become a horrible possibility.

What troubled Corwin were Southern charges that the Republican

party endangered the South's security and institutions, that

Republican doctrines were those of John Brown. Corwin, in a witty

and reassuring speech, retorted that if the Republican party held the

views attributed to it, the citizens of Ohio would leave it in a body.

The party's objectives, he said, were identical to those of all

conservative parties in the nation's history. "When gentleman can

satisfy me that they are not," he asserted, "I will abandon the

party."8 If the Democratic party could make something better out of

the Republicans with whom he disagreed, he hoped the Democrats

would take them. Why anyone would demonstrate for John Brown

(except members of his own family) he could not understand. "It

must be attributed to an intellectual cholera," he suggested, "for

there are intellectual as well as physical epidemics." Helper's book,

he assured the South, would not change the mind of a single resident

of the North in regard to slavery. Samuel S. Cox, the Ohio Democrat,

challenged Corwin's patent effort to transform the Republican party

into another Clay-Webster coalition. If Corwin favored the Fugitive

Slave Act, other Ohio Republicans opposed it. "Mr. Clerk," admitted

Cox, "I do not understand where the head or the tail of the

Republican party is. Is the gentleman (Mr. Corwin) the head or the

tail? I think of it, as the Irishman thought of the elephant-'there is

sure a tail at both ends of the animal.' "9


7. New York Post quoted in the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, November 7, 1859.

8. U.S., Congress, Senate, Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 1st session

December 8, 1859, 72, 73, 74-76.

9. Ibid., 78. See also Daryl Pendergraft, "Thomas Corwin and the Conservative

Republican Reaction, 1858-1861," The Ohio State Archaeological and Historical


232                                               OHIO HISTORY


Corwin understood the dangers to the Union inherent in a

Republican triumph over a divided Democratic party in 1860. To

counter those dangers he would sustain his claims of conservatism for

the Republican party. During October 1860, the Southern demands on

that strategy became intense, for the South's fears of the Republican

party mounted with Abraham Lincoln's prospects for victory. That

much of the Southern and border state quest for guarantees on

slavery focused on Corwin reflected his known conservatism, his

friendship with Lincoln, and his claims to leadership in the party.

Waddy Thompson, a one-time Southern Whig, acknowledged on

October 16, in a note to Corwin, that Lincoln's election was then

certain. "Do you know the man and will he be conservative?" asked

Thompson. "There is a general feeling of . . . insubordination

amongst our servants and apprehension with their masters. If he is

conservative as I hope & believe, will he so announce immediately

after his election. I hope so-it will do much good, and perhaps

prevent seceding movements." Two days later William L. Hodge,

another Southern conservative, warned Corwin that the Union had

entered a crisis created by the disunion sentiment in the South,

particularly in South Carolina and Georgia where extremists were in

control. Still, said Hodge, Lincoln might effectively counter the trend

toward secession by issuing an address to his "Southern

fellow-citizens, stating his intended course . . . & putting his

conservative views in the strongest light ..." Corwin himself could

not "render a more valuable service . . . than by taking this matter in

hand, promptly and jealously, & going at once to Mr. L. & urging


Corwin forwarded the two letters to Lincoln, reminding him that

both writers were old Union men who hoped to deprive the Southern

extremists of any excuse for secession. Any public statement

following the election, Corwin admitted, would acknowledge the

South's right to apprehend evil as the result of the Republican

victory. Still, Lincoln had no choice but to reassure the South. "The

dead point in your administration which must be passed in some

way," Corwin warned, "is this tendency in the Southern states (some

of them at least) to take some mad step, which once adopted, leads to

dangers which those who take it had not the discretion to fore-


Quarterly, LVII (January 1948), 1-23. This article deals largely with Corwin's

conservative stand in the election of 1858 and his actions in the House during the

sectional debates of 1859-1860.

10. Waddy Thompson to Corwin, October 16, 1860, William L. Hodge to Corwin,

October 18, 1860, The Papers of Robert Todd Lincoln, Library of Congress (hereafter

cited Lincoln Papers).

Thomas Corwin 233

Thomas Corwin                                            233


see. . . ."11 Corwin suggested that Lincoln's continued silence en-

couraged the circulation of rumors throughout the South that Corwin

and other conservatives, in their defense of the Fugitive Slave Act as

well as slavery in the District of Columbia, were speaking the views

of the President-elect. If such rumors were false, then Lincoln alone

could define the course his administration would take in some future

emergency. 12

Lincoln's continued refusal to speak increased the conservative

Southern pressure on Corwin. One Maryland Unionist admitted to

Corwin late in October that he had more faith in Lincoln than did his

friends, for Lincoln claimed earlier to be a Clay Whig. "But to the

point," he continued. "Mr Lincoln's election will create a profound

sensation in all the Southern States. The wolf is really upon us now,

and even in this old conservative state a feeling of uneasiness and

distrust is gradually growing up. ... [S]o soon as Mr. Lincoln's

election is a 'fixed fact,' the people of the border states will be greatly

agitated, and the secessionists further South will be in a perfect

frenzy. I care not, however, for the madness of the Yancyites-it is

the conservative men of the South that I am looking to, for justice &

patriotism." Lincoln, by exposing his principles on the slavery

question, might still quiet the South. Hodge pleaded with Corwin

again on October 30, "Do pray use your influence for the

purpose-they are downright crazy at the South." In South Carolina

especially, wrote Hodge, power was in the hands "of the rashest and

most crazy of the disunionists . . . resolved to make the plunge and

take all the chances."13

Such border state appeals clarified the issues facing the Republican

leadership. Still Corwin hesitated to offer Lincoln further advice.

Perhaps the state of the emergency might render a public statement

proper, but under no circumstances, Corwin wrote, dared Lincoln

permit Southerners to believe that the Republicans were timid.

Throughout November Lincoln at Springfield called for national

unity, but in none of his public statements did he take a stand on the

issues dividing the country. The Cincinnati Daily Gazette assured its

readers that Lincoln's views were identical to those of Daniel

Webster and Thomas Corwin-free soil for the territories but

admission of new slave states should the majority favor that



11. Corwin to Abraham Lincoln, October 28, 1860, Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. S. W. Spencer to Corwin, October 29, 1860; William L. Hodge to Corwin,

October 30, 1860; Corwin to Lincoln, November 4, 1860, Ibid.

14. See the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, November 23, December 5, 1860.


234                                              OHIO HISTORY


On the second day of the new session-December 4, 1860-the

House of Representatives adopted a resolution which provided for a

committee consisting of one member from each state to consider that

portion of the President's message which related "to the present

perilous condition of the country. ..." The vote to establish this

Committee of Thirty-three presaged trouble, for all thirty-eight who

voted against the committee were Republicans.15 Corwin was the

logical choice for the chairmanship, but the memory of his Mexican

War speech still caused doubts in some Southern minds. Further, his

Republican colleagues from Ohio revealed their distrust by voting

solidly against the proposal. What prejudiced the work of the

Committee of Thirty-three even further was the Republican speaker's

decision to select sixteen Republicans from the Northern states,

including four who had opposed the committee's creation. Northern

Democrats who had voted unanimously for the committee failed to

receive one appointment. When Corwin received the chairmanship,

Northern Democrats looked to him for support. Clement L. Vallan-

digham, speaking for the Democrats of Ohio, warned Corwin on De-

cember 10, "If the gentleman from Ohio, the chairman of this com-

mittee, would do anything effectively to court public sentiment in our

common state, it is to the two hundred and ten thousand men, not of

his own party, together with such others of that party as he may be

able to carry over with him, that he is to trust for the vindication of

such measures, if any, of conciliation and adjustment which his com-

mittee may propose...."16

Republicans opposed to compromise could still take comfort in the

assumption that Southern demands would always exceed what even

the most conciliatory Republicans would accept. Abolitionist Joshua

Giddings wrote on December 10 that the South "will do more for us

than we can do for ourselves."17 Giddings' analysis was fun-

damentally accurate. Those determining the course of Southern

politics had little interest in compromise. Probably no state

government of the Deep South was willing to remain in the Union

whatever compromise the North might offer. Even in Congress

Southern representatives denied that adjustment was possible.

George S. Hawkins of Florida warned that he would oppose all

compromise. "The day of compromise has passed," he said. James

L. Pugh of Alabama added, "I pay no attention to any action taken in



15. Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 2nd session, December 4, 1860, 6.

16. Ibid., 38.

17. Joshua Giddings to George W. Julian, December 14, 1860, The Papers of Joshua

Giddings and George Julian, Library of Congress.

Thomas Corwin 235

Thomas Corwin                                             235


this body."18 Sixteen of the twenty-two House members from the six

states of the Deep South refused to vote on the formation of the

Committee of Thirty-three. Some Southerners viewed the committee

as a Northern attempt to create dissension in the South; others

doubted that it would ever succeed in framing measures of

conciliation. John Bell supporters received two committee positions;

the rest, wherever possible, went to Stephen Douglas Democrats

who, no more than the Bell men, represented the dominant leadership

of the Southern states. Hawkins and William W. Boyce of South

Carolina asked to be excused from membership on the Corwin

committee. When the House refused to excuse them, they still

absented themselves, giving the Republicans a clear working

majority. Reuben Davis of Mississippi remained on the committee to

prevent, he said, any congressional interference with the secession

movement in the South.19

From the outset Corwin's committee appeared powerless to stay

the forces of disruption. That the nation had entered a dangerous

crisis was clear enough. "All is darkness, gloom & dismay," reported

one border state congressman on December 6. "Instead of united &

enlarged patriotism to steer the Barque from the jagged & terrific

breakers that surround us, extreme Southern men are for boring fresh

holes to scuttle her while the extremists of the north . . . seem

indifferent to the horrors of the depth of that abyss on which we

stand." For him the Committee of Thirty-three offered poor auspices

for success even though, he believed, Northern conservatives and the

united South could still command the necessary constitutional

guarantees.20 Such pessimism seemed universal even among the

moderates. The Cincinnati Daily Gazette regarded the committee as a

temporizing expedient, nothing more. Vallandigham declared the

crisis before Congress the gravest in the nation's history, but the

committee, he charged, was too weak, too diffused, and too dilated to

arrive at any helpful decision.21

Corwin called his committee into session on December 11, 1860, to

establish procedures. On the following afternoon the exchanges were

marked by a spirit of cordiality that created a momentary hope of

success.22 Thomas A. R. Nelson of Tennessee offered a series of


18. Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 2nd session, December 4, 1860, 6-7.

19. Ibid., 22-23, 36, 59-62.

20. John W. Stevenson to Thomas B. Stevenson, December 6, 1860, Stevenson


21. Cincinnati Daily Gazette, December 8, 1860; New York Tribune, December 11,


22. Washington National Intelligencer, December 15, 1860.


236                                               OHIO HISTORY


amendments to the Constitution. The first would extend the Missouri

Compromise line across the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and the

Mexican Cession not already included within states, slavery to be

forbidden north of the line but permitted and protected to the south.

A second amendment would bar the Federal government from

interfering with slavery in the slaveholding states or the District of

Columbia. Another proposal would strengthen the enforcement of the

Fugitive Slave Act. Nelson's final amendment would prevent the

election of a president and vice president from the same side of the

line of 36° 30' extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Miles Taylor

of Louisiana countered with an amendment to open the common

territories to the people of all the states, permitting them to take their

property with them and to enjoy the necessary protection of all their

rights and property. Should a state constitution abolish slavery,

slave-owning citizens could move their slaves to a slave state without

interference. Only Caucasians of unmixed blood would be permitted

to vote in territorial and state elections.23

On December 13 the committee discussed the need to offer

guarantees to the South. Albert Rust of Arkansas presented a

resolution declaring that the discontent of the Southern people was

not without cause, and that the Federal government, in the interest of

perpetuating the Union, must therefore provide further guarantees of

Southern rights. W. McKee Dunn of Indiana proposed an amended

version which offered guarantees-whether Southern discontent and

hostility were without just cause or not. Orris S. Ferry of Connecticut

and Justin S. Morrill of Vermont offered substitutions, with minor

variations in language, which expressed regret at the growing

Southern hostility toward the Federal government and favored any

reasonable, proper, and constitutional remedy to preserve the peace

of the country. The committee rejected the Ferry and Morrill

resolutions but adopted the Dunn substitution by a vote of

twenty-two to eight. Corwin voted with the majority. The committee

had gone on record favoring compromise, for even the defeated

measures called for some legal or constitutional adjustment.24 On

December 13 and 14 Corwin and William Kellogg of Illinois made

conciliatory speeches before the committee in an attempt to convince

its Southern members of Lincoln's conservatism.The committee voted

to make its initial proceedings public.

23. Journal of the Committee of Thirty-three in Report of Committees, House of

Representatives, 36th Congress, 2nd session, No. 31, 3-4; Washington National

Intelligencer, December 15, 1860.

24. Journal of the Committee of Thirty-three, 5-8; Washington National

Intelligencer, December 14, 1860.

Thomas Corwin 237

Thomas Corwin                                              237

Few Republican spokesmen shared Corwin's growing concern for

compromise. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, in a letter to

Lincoln,expressed surprise that the House voted to raise a committee

on the State of the Union. "It seems to me," he wrote, "that for

Republicans to take steps towards getting up committees on

proposing new compromises . . . would be wrong .. .25 One

Cincinnati Republican complained to Salmon P. Chase on December

7, "I am sorry to see Mr. Corwin's mischievous influence at work in

Washington. We can offer it seems to me no terms of compromise,

honorable & possible at the North, which the South are likely to

adopt. The future looks blue to me. I confess, if the Union & not

righteousness is to be only looked after and if the Republican party is

to take up the Union saving trade, it may as well go to the wall." The

New York Tribune argued against compromise, especially one gained

with Republican votes.26

Corwin in all probability did not understand the gulf that separated


25. See Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New

Brunswick, 1953-1955), IV, 150.

26. George Hoadly to Salmon P. Chase, December 7, 1860, The Papers of Salmon P.

Chase, Library of Congress (hereafter cited Chase Papers).


238                                              OHIO HISTORY


him from Lincoln on matters of party strategy. For Lincoln, and most

other Republican leaders, compromise on the territorial issue would

destroy the Republican party. To Trumbull the President-elect wrote

on December 10, "Let there be no compromise on the question of

extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must

be done again. . . . Stand firm. The tug has to come, & better now,

than any time hereafter." When Kellogg, on December 6, asked

Lincoln's advice on matters before the Committee of Thirty-three, the

President-elect responded, "Entertain no proposition for a

compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. The instant you do,

they will have us under again. . . . Douglas is sure to be again trying

to bring in his 'Pop. Sov.' Have none of it."27

For Corwin the times demanded nothing less than an official

Republican acceptance of old Whig doctrines on matters of slavery,

including some compromise arrangement for the territories. The

challenge to Republican leadership seemed sharper than ever.

Southern extremists in Congress still rationalized their secessionist

doctrines with charges that the Republican party had elected Lincoln

precisely because he was an enemy of Southern institutions. On

December 10 John A. Gilmer, a North Carolina Unionist, delivered to

Corwin a letter addressed to Lincoln. Gilmer requested that Lincoln

answer certain questions then before the country and thereby offer

reassurance to the vast body of Southern conservatives. "I am

satisfied," wrote Gilmer, "that our Northern population are not well

informed as to the excitement prevailing in the South. It seems to me

to border on madness & so it may appear to others, who believe with

me, that no adequate cause for it exists." For Gilmer the danger lay

in the constant misrepresentation of the Republican party in the

South. "Your answer," he informed Lincoln, "would at least put an

end to these misunderstandings." Again Corwin hesitated to impose

his views on Lincoln, but his high esteem for Gilmer, whom he knew

well, compelled him to write: "I have never, in my life, seen my

country in such a dangerous position. I look upon it with alarm, but

I am resolved not to be paralyzed by dismay. Our safety can only be

assured by looking for the danger full in the face & acting with calm

dignity... ."28

On December 11 Corwin addressed Lincoln again, agreeing to keep

any response to Gilmer's letter private until Lincoln issued his

consent to make it public. He urged Lincoln to come to Washington.


27. Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, IV, 149-50.

28. Corwin to Lincoln, December 10, 1860, Lincoln Papers; for pressure on Corwin

see also open letter in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, December 11, 1860.

Thomas Corwin 239

Thomas Corwin                                             239


"Many Southern men have expressed a great desire that you should

come here soon that Southern men, who are sincere Union men might

see & converse with you," ran Corwin's admonition. "Think of this

& judge for yourself.... Our Committee met this morning. The sky

is overcast. No one can foresee clearly what is in the future."29

Lincoln informed Gilmer that only his fear that silence might be

misconstrued prompted him to answer the letter at all. He could not,

Lincoln asserted, shift the ground upon which he was elected. That

ground was well known, embodied in the Chicago Platform and

innumerable speeches, all reported in the South. He would not repent

or apologize for the crime of being elected. Lincoln assured Gilmer

that he would not interfere with the slave trade among the slave states

or with slavery in the District of Columbia. "On the territorial

question," Lincoln concluded, "I am inflexible ... On that there is a

difference between you and us. ... You think slavery is right and

ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.

For this, neither has any just occasion to be angry with the other."30

Lincoln sent the letter to Corwin, to be delivered or not as he thought


After mid-December the Committee of Thirty-three made little

progress. Despite the secrecy of its proceedings, the knowledge that

Corwin favored compromise even in the territories destroyed

whatever acceptance his views still commanded in Republican circles.

Republicans agreed overwhelmingly to the principle of constitutional

guarantees for slavery in the states, but they condemned Corwin for

submitting territorial compromises to his committee. "If ever Corwin

was a Republican," complained one Illinois Republican, "the sooner

he is classed against us, the better .... To fight as few parties ever

did and give our enemies every advantage from our victory is

shameful in the highest degree." Corwin's compromise plans, wrote

another, would ruin the Republican party by giving up the ground the

party had fought for and won. One writer informed Ohio's Senator

Benjamin F. Wade that he was perhaps not aware "of the anxiety and

fears . . . lest the great principles contended for and now almost

secure are to be frittered away on some contemptable [sic]

compromise. We want no Tom Corwin overtures...."31

29. Corwin to Lincoln, December 11, 1860, Lincoln Papers.

30. Lincoln to John A. Gilmer, December 15, 1860; Lincoln to Lyman Trumbull,

December 17, 1860, in Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, IV, 151-53.

31. George T. Brown to Trumbull, December 15, 1860; A. B. McChesney to

Trumbull, December 18, 1860; G. O. Pond to Trumbull, December 23, 1860, The

Papers of Lyman Trumbull, Library of Congress (hereafter cited Trumbull Papers); H.

G. Blake to S. P. Chase, December 18, 1860, Chase Papers; M. Jewett to Benjamin F.

Wade, December 25, 1860, The Papers of Benjamin F. Wade, Library of Congress.


240                                              OHIO HISTORY


For many Republicans the rumors that Corwin and his Republican

associates on the committee would favor compromise in the

territories were unbelievable. None appeared more distraught at the

prospect than Carl Schurz, then lecturing in Boston. "Is it possible,"

he asked on December 17, "that they can trample under foot

everything that is dear to their constituents? I cannot, cannot believe

it. One thing is sure. As soon as their resolutions, or anything like

them, are adopted, the Republican party has ceased to exist." Schurz

reported that outside the large cities of the Northeast he had found no

Republicans who did not scorn the idea of retreating from the Chigago

platform. Even the conservatives demanded increasingly prompt and

vigorous execution of the laws against secession. "I cannot help

flattering myself," Schurz continued, "with the idea that even Mr.

Corwin cannot be in earnest with these resolutions, that they are in-

troduced merely for the purpose of gaining time. But even in that

case, their very introduction is an act of degredation, a slur upon the

moral sense of the people."32

Schurz condemned the Corwin committee in even stronger terms a

week later. "We are looking with intense anxiety," he wrote, "for

the report of the Committee of Thirty-three. As soon as it is made,

then we shall have arrived at the decisive crisis, which will put the

mettle and generalship of the Republicans in Congress to the test.

Now, I think, has the time come when they can abandon their

awkward, miserable, demoralizing, defensive position." If the House

Republicans faced no danger of compromise, Schurz advised, they

might act with promptness; if such a danger existed, then they should

open new fields for debate and argue everything at length to prevent a

vote in the House before March 4. It was essential, in short, that the

Lincoln Administration not be compromised before it assumed office.

As Schurz wrote to his wife, there was danger that "the party

standards [would] be lowered, and Lincoln . . . compelled to


For conservatives in Washington the last days of December were

discouraging. Outwardly the city appeared peaceful enough-the

machinery of government moving smoothly, the Supreme Court in

session, the Executive at his work. "But the moment you

encountered individuals," wrote one observer, ". .. your hopes sank

and you saw danger all around." Former Ohio Congressman Samuel

F. Vinton's report from Washington on December 21 was equally

32. Carl Schurz to J. F. Potter, December 17, 1860, Frederic Bancroft, ed.,

Speeches, Correspondence, and Political Papers of Carl Schurz (New York, 1913), I,


33. Schurz to J. F. Potter, December 24, 1860; Schurz to Mrs. Schurz, December 17,

1860, Ibid., 168, 173.

Thomas Corwin 241

Thomas Corwin                                                  241


pessimistic: "The controversy about slavery has been carried on until

the people of the North and the South have come to hate each other

worse than the hatred between any two nations in the world .... Our

probable future is too horrible for calm    contemplation."34 To

conservatives both in Washington and out, the South's challenge to

Republican leadership remained clear. Nothing less than Northern

guarantees on slavery would undermine the secessionist movement in

the Deep South and hold the border states in the Union. Any

compromise would do for the border states, one St. Louis Republican

assured Corwin. "If they can get such a trophy to hold up," he

wrote, "they will cling to the union and sustain the North in any

collision with the Gulf states."35 Corwin, trapped between the

demands of uncompromising politicians and editors, North and

South, and the universal cry of conservatives for conciliation,

reported his discouragement to Lincoln. He suggested again that

Lincoln's presence in Washington would allay more fears than all that

he had said in Springfield. Corwin continued:

There is an epidemic insanity raging all over this country & I am not sure we

can prevent the lunatics from destroying each other. You have seen all I

could say, in the papers of each day. I am quite sure Florida & Mississippi

will follow very soon the mad steps of S Carolina. Whether any more of the

cotton states will follow . . . I think doubtful. Our Committee of 33 is still

incubating. When or what it will hatch, no one can now predict. One thing we

cannot do. We can't make slavery the normal condition of all territory to be

conquered. I can myself yield much if the application of the principle is

confined to territory we already possess. My present purpose to bring the

entire territory into the Union by enabling acts & thus end the controversy,

making states of it all, leaving them as the pact of 1850 declares they may, to

come in, with or without slavery as they may ordain.... I see a long series of

troubles ahead if 3 or 5 states or 15 should secede. Wounded pride, personal

ambition, party strife & an almost total want of old fashioned patriotism, are

all that work with a fury unknown to any former crisis which has occurred in

my life time. I still hope, but am compelled to believe there is great danger,

which nothing but firm & prudent measures can overt.36

Under such circumstances the Committee of Thirty-three had no

chance of bridging the chasm between Republican inflexibility and the

demands of the Southern disunionists. The committee accepted a

resolution introduced by Henry Winter Davis of Maryland, requiring

the states to revise any laws which hindered the execution of the

34. William B. Reed to Thomas B. Stevenson, December 24, 1860, Stevenson

Papers; Samuel F. Vinton to William Greene, December 21, 1860, The Papers of

William Greene, Cincinnati Historical Society (hereafter cited Greene Papers).

35. Samuel T. Glover to Corwin, December 26, 1860, Lincoln Papers. For a similar

view see the letter from R. L. Hurt to Corwin, January 9, 1861, Ibid.

36. Corwin to Lincoln, December 24, 1860, Ibid.


242                                              OHIO HISTORY


Fugitive Slave Act. But the committee was hopelessly split over the

territorial issue. As early as December 17 it had rejected Nelson's

resolution favoring the Missouri Compromise line. Southerners,

represented by George S. Houston of Alabama, again proposed the

Missouri Compromise line with slavery protected to the south of it.

The Cincinnati Daily Gazette predicted on December 21 that the

Republicans would reject compromise and the Southerners would

leave the committee. The vote on Houston's resolution failed on

December 27. Thereupon Nelson offered in place of his amendments

of December 12 those which John J. Crittenden of Kentucky had

presented to the Senate a week earlier.37 The Crittenden plan called

for the extension of the Missouri line, the protection of slavery south

of that line, the permanent denial of congressional power over slavery

in the states, and compensation for slaves not recoverable because of

Northern opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act. The differences

between the Crittenden and Nelson proposals were slight indeed.

Clearly the Republicans on the committee were in a dilemma, for they

dared not accept even the conservative Southern position. This

placed them in the unfortunate role of appearing as the enemies of the


To set the committee Republicans right before the country, Charles

Francis Adams of Massachusetts agreed to support Henry Winter

Davis's proposal of December 21 for the admission of New Mexico

and Kansas as states, as well as for the two-thirds consent of both

houses of Congress for the acquisition of new territory. The status of

slavery in the added territory would remain as it had been at the time

of the acquisition. Davis, a former Know Nothing, had cooperated

with the Republicans on the committee and had voted against

Nelson's proposal of December 17. If Davis's formula did not satisfy

all Southerners, it seemed capable of saving the committee. By

December 26 the Republicans had perfected their proposal on New

Mexico. Thereupon Corwin charged Adams, a known antislavery

Republican, to present the resolution as his own. Adams

compromised his New England conscience and consented. The final

Republican offer included a provision which William L. Seward of

New York had sponsored in the Senate-that slavery in the states be

guaranteed against Federal interference.38

Adams introduced his resolutions on December 28. The vote on the



37. Journal of the Committee of Thirty-three, 11-13, 16-19.

38. On Adams' role see David M. Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession

Crisis (New Haven, 1942), 291-93; also Journal of the Committee of Thirty-three,

19-21, 33-34.

Thomas Corwin 243

Thomas Corwin                                                243


protection of slavery in the states passed quickly, twenty-one to

three. That on New Mexico came more slowly, thirteen to eleven,

with two border state members, Davis of Maryland and Francis

Bristow of Kentucky, in favor. No other Southerner present

supported the measure. Following the vote Miles Taylor of Louisiana

announced that inasmuch as the committee would never agree to any

proposal that would effectively settle issues growing out of the

slavery question, he would no longer participate fully in the

deliberations of the committee.

What destroyed the remaining Southern adherence to the work of

the committee was Adam's thoroughly Republican resolution of

January 11, 1861, which declared that the "peaceful acquiescence in

the election of a Chief Magistrate, accomplished in accordance with

every legal and constitutional requirement, is the paramount duty of

every good citizen of the United States." After the committee

substituted the words "high and imperative" for "paramount," it

approved the resolution, twenty-two to zero. Prior to the vote Taylor

submitted a statement, signed by six additional members of the

committee, that Adam's proposal in no way tended toward the

adjustment of the difficulties before the American people. Thereafter

the seven signers withheld their votes.39

Corwin managed, on January 14, to report a scheme of conciliation

to the House. The committee's five proposals included a call for the

repeal of Northern personal liberty laws; a constitutional amendment

forbidding any interference with slavery in the slave states; the

admission of New Mexico, presumably as a slave state; trials for

fugitive slaves in the states from which they had escaped; and new

Federal procedures designed to ease the problem of extraditing

fugitive slaves. Corwin, in presenting the report, accused the

Northern radicals of fomenting domestic insurrection and obstructing

the recovery of fugitive slaves-both of which caused disquiet in the

South. But again he absolved the Republican party of responsibility.

"The great mistake which is now urging on the public mind to the

wildest excesses," he said, "consists in confounding the . . .

abolitionists with the great mass of the Republican party of the North

and West."40

39. Washington National Intelligencer, December 31, 1860; Cincinnati Daily

Gazette, January 2, 1861.

40. Corwin's report published in Report of Committees, House of Representatives,

36th Congress, 2nd session, No. 31, 1-8. For commentary of Corwin's report see

Washington National Intelligencer, January 17, 1861; Cincinnati Daily Gazette,

January 17, 1861; New York Tribune, January 17, 18, 1861. What disturbed the Tribune

was Corwin's willingness to accept the charge that Northern publications were inciting

rebellion in the South.


244                                                 OHIO HISTORY


Whether the Corwin proposals comprised a genuine majority report

was doubtful. Horace Greeley's New York Tribune denied it. Nor did

Corwin's formula for a settlement discourage members of his

committee from submitting at least five strongly-worded minority

reports which variably denied the need of any Federal action in the

crisis except the enforcement of Federal laws, called for a convention

of the states to frame amendments to the Constitution which might

protect the growing and conflicting interests of the American people,

or demanded consideration of the Crittenden proposals. That of

Adams objected simply to the offer of reasonable measures which the

South would never accept.41 Corwin's experience on the Committee

of Thirty-three merely completed his descent to a mood of

hopelessness and resignation. On January 16, two days after he

submitted his report, he committed his disillusionment to paper in a

letter to Lincoln:

If the states are no more harmonious in their feelings & opinions than these

33 representative men then, appaling [sic] as the idea is, we must dissolve & a

long & bloody civil war must follow. I cannot comprehend the madness of the

time. Southern men are theoretically crazy. Extreme Northern men are

practical fools. The latter are really quite as mad as the former. Treason is in

the air around us every where. It goes by the name of Patriotism. Men in

Congress boldly avow it, & the public offices are full of acknowledged

secessionists. God alone I fear can help us. Four or five states are gone,

others are driving before the gale. I have looked on this horrid picture till I

have been able to gaze on it with perfect calmness. I think if you live, you

may take the oath.42

On January 21 Corwin addressed the House in his final defense of

the Union. "My mission today," he began, "is one of conciliation, of

peace." Again he assured the South that the Republican party had

neither the power nor the intention of carrying out the foolish and

unconstitutional designs which Southerners attributed to it. He

reminded those who feared the Republican party that the South was

strong enough to prevent the passage of any amendment it opposed.

The North, he said, had no desire to interfere with slavery in the

Southern states. If the South wanted New Mexico, she could have it;

he proposed to bring New Mexico into the Union immediately.43 Why

the South required new slave territory he failed to understand, for the

price of slaves indicated that they were already in short supply. If the



41. For minority reports see Report of Committees, House ofRepresentatives, 36th

Congress, 2nd session, No. 31.

42. Corwin to Lincoln, January 16, 1861, Lincoln Papers.

43. Morrow, Life and Speeches of Corwin, 459, 467-69.

Thomas Corwin 245

Thomas Corwin                                              245


slave economy already had access to sufficient land, then why the

quarrel? "I will not, I can not," ran Corwin's final plea, "anticipate

the future, and walk forth among the broken arches, the ruined

towers, and prostrate columns of this glorious temple of freedom....

That temple still stands in all its grand proportions; but it stands

alone. Wander over all the earth, and you will find no other like it. I

will not believe that the blows aimed at it ... shall cause it to rock or

reel. I will hope, as they who built it prayed and hoped, that it shall

stand forever, as it now stands, on its own solid and deep

foundations. "44

Whig Republicans and moderate Democrats, in Congress and out,

still anticipated some compromise that would keep Virginia and other

Southern states in the Union. "Do not the Republican gentlemen

learn enough of the Philosophy of History to know that delay is fatal

in such a crisis as this," complained a Richmond Unionist in

February. Republican reluctance to compromise, he warned, would

merely harden sectional feeling. Even such well-known Southern

conservatives as William C. Rives of Virginia accepted without

question the need for new and permanent guarantees to protect the

rights of the slaveholding states.45

In Congress Corwin battled to accommodate the moderate

Southern and border state demands. In managing the debates on his

committee's proposals he remained fair and conciliatory, but by the

end of February the House was in a state of bedlam. Corwin

complained on one occasion, "I have never yielded the floor at all.

Gentlemen take it from me without asking leave; and they do not care

whether I yield or not, or whether they are recognized by the Chair or

not."46 Calls of order rang across the chamber; it had become almost

impossible to carry on the business of the House. Even more

intolerable than the evident apathy of many Americans toward events

in Congress was the helplessness of those who favored compromise.

Eventually the House adopted Corwin's resolution for a stronger

enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, but it rejected statehood for

New Mexico.47 The committee's proposed amendment to bar any

future congressional interference with slavery in the states passed the




44. Ibid., 477.

45. Vinton to Greene, January 19, 1861, Greene papers; J. D. Davidson to W. C.

Rives, February 1, 1861; James Barbour to Rives, February 18, 1861; G. Kemble to

Rives, February 20, 1861; Rives to T. J. Wertenbaker et al., January 23, 1861, The

Papers of William C. Rives, Library of Congress.

46. Truman Smith to Trumbull, January 24, 1861, Trumbull Papers.

47. Washington National Intelligencer, March 2, 1861.


246                                                  OHIO HISTORY


House on February 28, in amended form, by a vote of 133 to 65. On

March 2 the Senate adopted the amendment by the same narrow

constitutional majority, twenty-four to twelve.48 Too late the measure

went before the states.

Republican strategy had begun to tell. Republicans argued

throughout February that compromise with treason would strip the

party of its superior moral position and force its dissolution. As the

crisis deepend many insisted that Northern firmness, not

compromise, would terminate the sectional conflict. Thus Senator

Truman Smith of Connecticut could praise Trumbull for his "manly &

truly patriotic efforts . . . in exposing the treasonable purposes of

those who would break up our glorious Union & bring on the Country

unspeakable calamities and all the horrors of civil war."49 One

Chicagoan warned Trumbull that the country would enjoy quiet and

repose in direct proportion to Republican resolve. "So long as Mr.

Adams of Massachusetts will concede a little or bid for peace, . . .

and Mr. Corwin will favor this or that change," ran his warning, ". .

just so long the rebels are by that very thing prompted to ask more,

demand more."50 Such Republicans condemned Corwin and Kellogg

for surrendering the principles of the Chicago platform. "I hope Mr.

Kellogg & such republicans will go over to the slave-holders or get a

sticking plaster to strengthen their backbones," wrote one Delaware

Republican. "They do much mischief to their friends."51

Whether any compromise on the territories would have satisfied

those in control of Deep South politics or altered the course of

subsequent events is doubtful. But for Corwin the Republican party,

as a powerful sectional creation, was the immediate source of

contention in national life. To Republican realists any retreat from the

Chicago platform would not only divide and weaken their coalition

but also play directly into the hands of the Douglas Democrats.

"Beware of Compromise," admonished one Republican. "It killed

Clay and Webster. It killed the old Whig Party, and if you are not

careful it will slaughter the present generation of politicians."



48. Herman V. Ames, The Proposed Amendments to the Constitution, Annual

Report of the American Historical Association (Washington, 1896), II, 195-96. For a

history of the Corwin Amendment see R. Alton Lee, "The Corwin Amendment in the

Secession Crisis," The Ohio Historical Quarterly, LXX (January 1961), 1-26. This article

does not focus on Corwin's relationship to the Republican party but on the evolution and

final disposal of the amendment itself.

49. H. G. McPike to Trumbull, January 24, 1861, Trumbull Papers.

50. Thomas Richmond to Trumbull, January 29, 1861, Ibid.

51. A. P. Bartlett to Trumbull, February 9, 1861; W. McCaulley to Trumbull,

February 24, 1861, Ibid.

Thomas Corwin 247

Thomas Corwin                                          247


Corwin, the reluctant Republican, rejected that view of history. For

him Clay and Webster had not failed; those who killed the Whig party

had committed the error. Now in victory they endangered the Union

as well. But the South had once accepted the Whig party as its own.

On the basis of that knowledge Corwin set out in the early stages of

the crisis to convince Southerners that the Whig tradition lived on in

the Republican party. His role in the sectional struggle was unique,

perhaps even heroic. It was nonetheless futile, for Thomas Corwin's

voice was never that of the Republican party.