Letter from President Lincoln

A letter from President Lincoln transmitting a proposed constitutional amendment barring Congress from prohibiting slavery. (Credit Maryland State Archives, Baltimore Sun / January 23, 2014)

The Civil War casts a long shadow.

In the first year of that wrenching conflict, Maryland's lawmakers voted unanimously for a constitutional amendment to bar the federal government from abolishing slavery. Now, more than 150 years later, some legislators in Annapolis are looking to put the state on the right side of history.

A Senate committee is scheduled Thursday to consider rescinding the state's 1862 ratification of the so-called "shadow" 13th Amendment, which would have locked slavery into the U.S. Constitution.

It's an oft-overlooked footnote in American history, one that was rapidly overtaken by the outbreak of the Civil War and the ratification nearly four years later of the "real" 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery nationwide. Maryland lawmakers never voted to rescind their approval of the earlier amendment, even though they did abolish slavery in the state in 1864 and were among the first to ratify the federal antislavery amendment in 1865.

"It's a relic, but it's a blot on our history," said Sen. Brian. E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and a chief sponsor of the rescinding resolution. "We need to change our history."

"This is basically just tidying up a bit of undone history," agreed Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who introduced a companion measure in the House of Delegates.

Frosh said he was prompted to act after a young constituent brought the issue to his attention. Shannon Welch, 21, a Chevy Chase native who's majoring in history and government at Wesleyan University, said she happened to see the crumbling original amendment document last summer while doing an internship at the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington.

"Once I read it, I was shocked," said Welch, as she noticed the text identified it as a proposed 13th amendment to the Constitution. "In my mind the 13th Amendment is the one we all know destroying slavery. And then to Google it and find out it in fact would have institutionalized slavery … was fascinating to me."

Historians say the amendment was a last-ditch effort by Congress to keep the nation from splintering after the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, who many Southerners were sure aimed to end their "peculiar institution" of slavery. In the weeks leading up to Lincoln's inauguration, lawmakers in Washington searched frantically for something to lure seceding Southern states back into the Union.

"There were millions of compromise proposals in the winter of 1861," said Columbia University historian Eric Foner, the author of several books on the era. "This was the only one that was actually passed by Congress."

Put forward by Ohio Rep. Thomas Corwin, a member of Lincoln's Republican Party, the proposed amendment tried to bridge the growing rift between free Northern states and those with substantial slave populations. Foner said it was aimed primarily at Southerners who did not favor secession but who feared federal action to limit or end slavery.

Lincoln gave the amendment a nod of sorts in his inaugural address, saying he had no objection to it. While some might find that surprising coming from "the Great Emancipator," as Lincoln was called after the war, the new president said at the time that the amendment merely confirmed what he believed the Constitution already implied: that it was up to individual states to decide about slavery.

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists," he said. "I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Lincoln's position on slavery would change dramatically as the war dragged on. But in early 1861, he forwarded the proposed amendment to the states for possible ratification.

Hopes the amendment would halt the slide to disunion were quickly shattered when Confederate forces opened fire in April 1861 on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. It's widely reported that only three states — Ohio, Maryland and Illinois — approved it. But Edward C. Papenfuse, who retired recently after a long career as Maryland's state archivist, said it appears three other states — Indiana, Kentucky and Rhode Island — also ratified it.

It's not totally clear why Maryland lawmakers went ahead with ratification months after the war broke out. In January 1862, outgoing Gov. Thomas H. Hicks, a slave owner from Dorchester County, urged the General Assembly to approve the amendment without any elaboration. That month, the Senate and House of Delegates voted unanimously for it, but no speeches are recorded. Newspaper accounts were similarly cursory: The Baltimore Sun reported the final passage without elaboration.

But historians say the vote should be seen in the context of the times. Maryland was a slave-holding border state with many commercial ties to the South, and some wanted it to follow Virginia in seceding. Many others remained loyal to the Union, but clung to the belief that the federal government should leave slavery to the states to sort out.

"It was really a volatile period," said John T. Willis, former secretary of state and a student of Maryland political history. There were 87,000 slaves in Maryland in 1860 before war broke out, the most of any state that did not secede, he said. Most of the slaves were in rural southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, and those regions enjoyed disproportionate political power in the General Assembly, according to Robert J. Brugger, author of a history of the state.

But secessionist sentiment also erupted in Baltimore. A week after the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter, Massachusetts troops were attacked by rioters as they passed through the city on their way to protect Washington. Federal troops quickly occupied the city, as the Lincoln administration made sure Maryland did not secede and cut the nation's capital off from the North.

"You can see any legislative body casting emotional votes against the federal government when they've sent troops to your state and started demanding loyalty oaths," Willis said. "It's not surprising that they did this."

Others suggest Marylanders' motives for backing the amendment might have been more complicated. Owen Lourie, a researcher at the state archives, notes that Governor Hicks was a staunch opponent of secession, but feared abolition would hurt Maryland's economy. Hicks' support "likely stemmed from a belief that making it impossible to abolish slavery would put an end to anti-slavery agitation," said Lourie.

Even some members of Lincoln's own party, presumably committed to limiting if not ending slavery, backed the amendment. Papenfuse notes that one of Maryland's congressional delegation, Rep. Henry Winter Davis of Baltimore, a Republican, explained in a speech on the House floor in 1861 that he believed the measure would "quiet forever" fears by slaveholding states that the North was scheming to free their slaves.

Southern states were unimpressed, and in time their fears proved warranted. Lincoln eventually made the war about ending slavery and not just saving the Union. After a bloody daylong battle at Antietam (known in the South as Sharpsburg) in 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the rebellious South but not in loyal border states like Maryland. After he won reelection in 1864, Lincoln pushed openly for a constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery everywhere.

Marylanders shifted, too. Even before Congress finally passed the 13th Amendment in early 1865, the state had adopted a new constitution that ended slavery. Maryland voters narrowly approved the new government blueprint in 1864, with absentee ballots from soldiers in the field providing the margin of victory.

In light of that action, Papenfuse suggested lawmakers need not feel compelled to rescind the Corwin amendment.

But others see merit in a vote, however belated, to clean up the historical record.

"It's a nice symbolic gesture, said Harold Holzer, another noted scholar of Lincoln and Civil War-era politics. "It's a shadow amendment … whose shadow everyone would like to see not cast on their historical wall anymore."

Baltimore Sun news researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article..

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com