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Righting Md.’s wrong vote on slavery

Senate panel hears bill to withdraw ratification

ANNAPOLIS — In a bid to prevent a war that was then just months away, U.S. Rep. Thomas Corwin of Ohio proposed a constitutional amendment in 1861 to bar Congress from passing any law that would interfere with any state’s “domestic institutions” — including slavery.

The Senate and House quickly approved the proposed Corwin Amendment in March 1861 with the requisite two-thirds vote in each chamber. The amendment, however, never won the approval of three-fourths of the states, as required for ratification.

Maryland — then a slaveholding state — was one of four states that did vote, in 1862, to ratify the amendment, which would have enshrined slavery in the Constitution.

Now, 152 years later, the Maryland General Assembly appears poised to pass legislation to rescind that vote.

Brian Frosh

State Sen. Brian Frosh

“It is an unattractive page in our state’s history, a page that we ought to turn,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chief sponsor of the rescission measure, Senate Joint Resolution 1.

Frosh urged his fellow lawmakers to support the resolution at the start of a hearing session Thursday of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which he chairs.

The Montgomery County Democrat said he was unaware of this “particularly ugly part of our state’s history” until somebody at the National Archives brought the General Assembly’s long-ago vote to his attention.

Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio also ratified the amendment designed to appease the Southern states, “an attempt to keep the Union together at all costs,” Frosh said.

But war broke out in April 1861 and would not end until April 1865, at a cost of more than 618,000 lives. In December 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified, banning slavery.

Thus, a rescission vote at this point would be largely — but not technically — symbolic. Congress, in approving the Corwin Amendment in 1861, set no deadline for its ratification, meaning the proposal is still active.

A century-long lag between congressional approval and ratification is not without precedent.

Congress set no deadline in 1789 for ratification of an amendment to bar members of Congress from increasing their compensation during the same congressional session. The states ratified the proposal as the 27th amendment 213 years later, in 1992.

Patric S. Enright, of Gambrills, was the only person to testify on the resolution Thursday, telling the Judicial Proceedings Committee that no excuse suffices for Maryland’s support for the Corwin amendment, not even the goal of preventing war.

“I am concerned that good, well-meaning men would be driven to craft, support and enact a concept embedding slavery and involuntary servitude forever in our Constitution as a conciliatory Band-Aid to prevent secession and dissolution of the Union,” Enright said.

The Corwin Amendment, as passed by both houses of Congress, would provide that “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.”