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  Name:  Thomas Corwin
  Born:  July 29, 1794
  Died:  December 18, 1865

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Corwin, Thomas (July 29, 1794 – December 18, 1865)

Thomas Corwin was a congressman, senator, Ohio governor, U.S. treasury secretary, and diplomat.  In 1861, he chaired the House committee that proposed the original and unratified Thirteenth Amendment, which was offered as a way to avoid secession and sectional conflict by protecting the institution of slavery.   

Thomas Corwin was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, on July 29, 1794, to Patience Halleck Corwin and Matthias Corwin.  Four years later, the family moved to a farm outside Lebanon, Ohio.  Matthias Corwin served in the Ohio House of Representatives for 11 terms, two as speaker.  Young Thomas Corwin worked on the family farm, and then read law before being admitted to the state bar in 1817.  The next year, he was named prosecuting attorney for Warren County, Ohio, serving ten years in that position (1818–1828).  He married Sarah Ross in 1822; the couple later had five children. 

Corwin was elected in 1822, 1823, and 1829 to one–year terms in the Ohio House of Representatives.  In 1830, he was elected to the first of five consecutive terms (1831–1840) in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Committee on Public Lands in the Twenty–Sixth Congress (1839–1841).  First as a National Republican and then as a Whig, he supported protective tariffs, federal financing of internal improvements, and a national bank.  He was a talented speaker, whose sharp wit in debates inspired a journalist to call him “the terror of the House.”  He resigned from Congress on May 30, 1840, to run as the Whig nominee for governor of Ohio.  Campaigning energetically throughout the state, he defeated the Democratic incumbent, Wilson Shannon.  With only limited authority as governor, Corwin’s proposals for a state bank and other financial reforms failed to pass the Democratically–controlled state senate.  In 1842, he reluctantly accepted renomination by the Whig Party, and then suffered the only electoral defeat of his career that fall. 

When the Whig Party returned to power in 1844, the Ohio legislature elected Corwin to the U.S. Senate.  As a leading critic of the War with Mexico (1846–1848), his harsh rebukes of President James K. Polk were labeled unpatriotic by some Democrats, while Whigs defended the statements.  In 1848, he was encouraged to seek the presidency by a group of antislavery advocates who considered the Mexican War to be an effort by Southerners to spread slavery.  He refused the offer, and campaigned for the Whig nominee, General Zachary Taylor.  Corwin’s anti–war stance had been based on what he considered to have been the immorality of the conflict, not opposition to slavery, an issue on which he did not wish to see the Whig Party divide.  He supported the Compromise of 1850, which included both anti– and pro–slavery elements.  Following the death of President Taylor on July 9, 1850, his successor, President Millard Fillmore, appointed Corwin to be secretary of the treasury.  Corwin’s call for a return to high tariffs went unfulfilled by the Democratically–controlled Congress.  When the Fillmore administration ended in March 1853, he returned to a prosperous law practice in Lebanon, Ohio. 

Corwin did not engage in the public debate over the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened the Western territories to slavery.  He remained loyal to the dying Whig Party until unenthusiastically endorsing Republican presidential nominee John C. Frémont late in the 1856 campaign.  Two years later, he won election as a Republican to Congress, where he sought to downplay the slavery question and emphasize economic issues.  He backed enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the Thirty–Sixth Congress (1859–1861).   

After initially supporting Supreme Court Justice John McLean, a fellow Ohioan, for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, Corwin campaigned for nominee Abraham Lincoln in several states, and also won reelection for himself.  His electioneering effectiveness caused Republican Robert Ingersoll to call him the “king of the stump.”  In December 1860, Corwin was named chairman of a special House Committee of Thirty–Three, which was appointed to find a compromise to the sectional conflict.  The committee proposed a constitutional amendment to protect slavery forever where it existed (i.e., in the South).  Congress passed the “Corwin Amendment” in early 1861, but it failed to gain ratification by the states. 

In March 1861, President Lincoln appointed Corwin as the U.S. minister to Mexico, where the congressman’s earlier opposition to the Mexican War made him a popular choice.  During his tenure there, he worked successfully to keep Mexico from recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation.  His opposition to French intervention in Mexico went unheeded, and he resigned on the eve of the arrival of the French puppet emperor, Maximilian, in May 1864.  Corwin resumed practicing law in Washington, D.C., where he died on December 18, 1865, the day the abolitionist Thirteenth Amendment officially became part of the U.S. Constitution.

Sources consulted:  Auer, J. Jeffrey, “Thomas Corwin,” “The Governors of Ohio,” The Ohio Historical Society (online); Frederick J. Blue, “Corwin, Thomas,” American National Biography (online); “Corwin, Thomas,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (online).


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