||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
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
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.
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).