Who Freed The Slaves? The Fight Over the Thirteenth Amendment

  • By Leonard L. Richards
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 261 pp.

A misunderstood part of the Constitution finally gets its due.

Who Freed The Slaves? The Fight Over the Thirteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment is the Rodney Dangerfield of the three Civil War-era amendments to the Constitution. It just doesn’t get much respect.

The Fifteenth Amendment ensured the right of black males to vote; the Fourteenth guaranteed to all Americans the equal protection of the law and applied due process of law against state governments.

The Thirteenth? Sure, it abolished slavery, but hadn’t Abraham Lincoln already done that with the Emancipation Proclamation? So it was no big deal, right?

Au contraire, mon ami, is the message from Leonard Richards in his new telling of the story of this neglected constitutional provision. In 1864, the fourth year of civil war, when Congress first voted on an amendment to end slavery, only one-eighth of the nation’s four million slaves had been freed.

Slavery then was legal in four Border States (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware); in New Orleans, plus 12 other Louisiana parishes; in the new state of West Virginia; and in seven counties and two cities in Virginia. Plus, the Emancipation Proclamation relied on the president’s war-making powers, which meant that it likely would lapse when the fighting ended.

Only an abolition amendment to the Constitution would end slavery. It was essential.

The hero of the tale is Congressman James Ashley, a Republican abolitionist from Toledo, Ohio, who led the fight. In 1864, the Senate approved his abolition amendment by the required two-thirds vote, but the count fell short in the House of Representatives. Ashley preserved his right to bring the measure up again in the “lame duck” session of Congress after the fall 1864 elections.

The voters thumpingly voted for pro-amendment Republicans that autumn, but the new Congress wouldn’t convene for another 12 months. Unwilling to wait, Ashley pressed the House to approve the amendment in early 1865. The vote was a cliffhanger, as captured (with imperfect fealty to the facts) in the 2012 Spielberg movie “Lincoln.”

Richards’ narrative can wander, jumping back and forth between the amendment process and backstory about politics during the war. Digressions can undermine forward motion. Yet he hits on a structure that promises a crackling drama.

Ashley entered January 1865 needing to find 11 new votes for the amendment.  The best prospects were from Democratic congressmen who had been pro-slavery until that point. The Ohio congressman asked four colleagues — a weirdly diverse group — to prepare lists of possible vote-switchers. Ashley’s advisers fingered 18 congressional opponents of abolition who might come around.

Fourteen of the men on Ashley’s list were themselves lame ducks who would leave Congress in just a few weeks. They were prime candidates to resist party discipline and follow their own consciences on the abolition amendment. Others might swap their votes for government jobs or for other goodies in an era of widespread corruption. No less august a source than Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a stalwart anti-slavery man, later said that the amendment was enacted through corruption.

What a set-up! How will Ashley get his two-thirds majority? Will he trade favors to win over the craven? Will he scale heights of rhetorical passion to summon the latent altruism of at least a few of the lame ducks?

Sadly, the drama seeps away. Richards tracks only a couple of the vote-switchers and doesn’t account for the others. Perhaps the historical sources run out. Ashley’s private papers burned in a fire.

Despite the anti-climax, Richards helps restore the Thirteenth Amendment to the central place it should hold in the story of the Civil War. He also sketches a picture of Lincoln that contrasts with his popular image as the Great Emancipator. In this book, Lincoln seems much less a leader and far more a man pushed toward abolition by events and by those around him with sterner convictions.

When Congress worked on the first legislation to confiscate slaves from Confederate leaders and soldiers, Lincoln argued that any seizures should be reversed upon the death of the disloyal person. For nearly two years, Lincoln urged compensated emancipation for the Border States. Many months into the war, he still supported colonizing freed slaves in Central America. Repeatedly, he delayed the recruitment of black soldiers, or supported lower pay for them, to avoid angering slaveholders in Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri.

A possibly apocryphal story attributes to Lincoln the statement to a group of clergymen that “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” The Lincoln in this book clings to that principle.

David O. Stewart is the author of Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America, which was released on February 10th, and several other books. He also is president of the Independent.

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