Maryland legislature to consider rescission of 1860s pro-slavery law

by Tamieka Briscoe
Capital News Service

Some Maryland lawmakers say they are seeking to correct a past wrong, and want to repeal a pro-slavery law that remains in effect after more than 150 years.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery in the United States, but the initial proposed 13th Amendment—called the Corwin Amendment—would have done just the opposite.

The Corwin Amendment, named after politician Thomas Corwin of Ohio, would have permanently prevented Congress from overriding state slavery laws.

The Corwin Amendment was approved by Congress in 1861, and was ratified by Maryland the following year. However, the outbreak and outcome of the Civil War prevented it from ever becoming the law of the land.

Maryland and Ohio were the only two states to ratify the amendment through legislative vote. Illinois ratified the amendment by constitutional convention, which was ultimately considered invalid because ratification required state legislative approval. While Ohio rescinded the law in the 1860s, Maryland’s acceptance of the amendment has yet to be overturned.

Shannon Welch, a Chevy Chase native who is now a senior at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., stumbled across the Corwin Amendment during a summer internship at the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, D.C. She said she read about Ohio’s ratification and recission of the measure and was curious about Maryland’s connection to the amendment. When she discovered that her home state had not rescinded the 152-year old law, she took action.

One of the people she reached out to was her state senator, Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery County. Frosh, a Wesleyan University graduate, agreed to initiate the legislation to rescind Maryland’s ratification of the measure.

“I contacted him on a whim,” Welch, 21, said. “I sent an email to multiple state representatives to see why this had never been overturned, and Senator Frosh emailed me back.”

Frosh, who is running for state attorney general, said, “We ought to put Maryland on the right side of history.”

He does not anticipate any problems getting the bill passed.

“I don’t believe this will be a heavy lift.” Frosh said.

Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, Delegate Jill Carter, D-Baltimore and Delegate Joseph F. Vallario, Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat, are sponsoring the bill in the House of Delegates.

To supporters, the measure to rescind the pro-slavery law has little to do with legality and more to do with legacy.

“The Corwin Amendment is an amendment that failed, therefore any efforts to undo it at this point, is symbolic,” said Jonathan L. Entin, a professor of law and political science at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “I believe that the legislators in Maryland are saying, ‘We are embarrassed that our past legislators did this ridiculous thing, and we want to set the records straight.’”

Entin said that it is common for legislators to correct past laws that conflict the liberties afforded by the U.S. Constitution. “Massachusetts did not ratify the Bill of Rights until 1939, it was also symbolic.” Entin said.

He explained that the symbolism lies in the fact that the U.S. Constitution has a supremacy clause through which federal laws supersede state laws. For this reason, the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, applies to every state. In another example, Entin also referenced an Alabama interracial marriage ban that was not repealed until 2000.

“It doesn’t matter what the Alabama Constitution says. If Alabama had tried to enforce that provision, it could have been tried in court and the U.S. Constitution would prevail.” Entin said.

Photo of enslaved Marylanders courtesy Historic St. Mary’s City