Thirteenth Amendment

Thirteenth Amendment

Ben Perley’s Reminiscences
Reference Number: Volume I, p. 485

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(Cambridge University Press, 2001)
“The course of events leading from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Thirteenth Ament was anything but predictable,” wrote historian Michael Vorenberg in Final Freedom: The Civil War, The Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. “After Lincoln issued the proclamation, lawmakers, politicians, and ordinary Americans considered a variety of plans for making emancipation permanent and constitutional. The abolition amendment was simply one of the many methods considered and, in the early going, was no means the leading choice. Only during the course of political struggles in late 1863 and early 1864 did the amendment emerge as the most popular of the abolition alternatives.”1
The Emancipation Proclamation, issued in its final form on January 1, 1863, applied only to sections of the United States then under rebellion and out of Union control. It was an important military initiative and justified as a “military necessity.” But the duration and scope of its impact was in question. Congressman George Julian, a strong advocate for emancipation, wrote that “even if the proclamation could have given freedom to the slaves according to its scope, their permanent enfranchisement would not have been secured, because the status of slavery, as it existed under the local laws of the States prior to the war, would have remained after the re-establishment of peace. All emancipated slaves found in those States, or returning to them, would have been subject to slavery as before, for the simple reason that no military proclamation could operate to abolish their municipal laws. Nothing short of a Constitutional amendment could at once give freedom to our black millions and make their re-enslavement impossible…”2
On January 11, 1864, Missouri Senator John B. Henderson, a political ally of President Lincoln, introduced a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in the United States. The Senate strategy for such an amendment, however, was largely driven by Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull, a longtime colleague and sometime rival of President Lincoln. His efforts won Senate passage in the spring of 1864 but in June the House fell short of the two-thirds majority necessary to send the amendment to the states for ratification.
The President had not interfered but decided in early June to instruct his political lieutenants to make passage of the amendment a major issue at the Republican-Union National Convention in Baltimore. New York Senator Edwin D. Morgan, the Republican National Chairman, dutifully followed the President’s instructions. He highlighted the amendment in his speech to the convention and assured that it was included as part of the party platform.
After the convention concluded, two editors who were frequent critics of the President, “Theodore Tilton and Wendell Garrison, visited Lincoln and talked with him for more than an hour,” wrote historian James M. McPherson. “The president thanked Garrison for his support, and confided that the antislavery plank in the Republican platform had been inserted at Presidential request. Garrison found his interview with Lincoln ‘very satisfactory.’ ‘There is no mistake about it in regard to Mr. Lincoln’s desire to do all that he can…to uproot slavery, and give fair-play to the emancipated. I was much pleased with his spirit.'”3
The amendment had become a political as well as a policy initiative. Moreover, President Lincoln clearly believed that the Amendment was the debt the country owed to the 180,000 black Americans who fought on the Union side in the Civil War. However, during the fall presidential campaign, the amendment virtually disappeared from public debate. “Much more than a popular decision for emancipation, the vote of 1864 was a call for the return of stability under the Union.”4
With his reelection in November 1864, President Lincoln resolved to push for immediate passage of the amendment even though the composition of Congress would not change for a year. In his memoirs, Maine Congressman James G. Blaine raised another reason for Mr. Lincoln’s action: “He believed the rebellion to be near its end, and no man could tell how soon a proposition might come for surrender of the Confederate Armies and the return of the Rebel States to their National allegiance. If such a proposition should be made, Mr. Lincoln knew that there would be a wild desire among the loyal people to accept it, and that in the forgiving joy of re-union they would not insist upon the conditions which he believed essential to the future safety and strength of the National Government. Slavery had been abolished in the District of Columbia by a law of Congress, and in Maryland by her own action. It still existed in the other Border States and in Tennessee, and its abolition in the remaining States of the Confederacy depended upon the validity of the President’s Proclamation of Emancipation.”5
Backers of the amendment used a wide spectrum of arguments to collect support. Vorenberg wrote: “During the summer, Lincoln had helped to give the amendment an anti-radical flavor when he invoked the measure as the preferred alternative to the Wade-Davis bill, which many perceived as an attempt to reorder southern society. Now, in the final amendment debate, the Pennsylvania Democrat Alexander Offroth, who had spoken against the measure six months before, added more conservative gloss. With the amendment’s adoption, he announced, fanaticism “Writhes with pain, and dies among its worshipers.””6
Along with presidential leadership, there was also a public press on Congress during January, noted Vorenberg. “Appeals for the emancipation amendment poured into Congress from constituents, state legislatures, and popular conventions throughout the North and the border states.”7 The congressional strategy was masterminded by Ohio Congressman James V. Ashley while President Lincoln worked on Democrats and former Whigs who could be persuaded to either switch their vote or be conveniently absent at the time of the tally. It was an uncharacteristic presidential intervention in congressional voting – which apparently included enticements for key congressmen from the President and Secretary of State William H. Seward.
“In one phrase it may be said that every power of his office was exerted to secure the passage, in the Thirty-eighth Congress, of the resolution, by which the proposed amendment was submitted to the States,” wrote Internal Revenue Commissioner George S. Boutwell. Lincoln scholar Frank Williams wrote: “There were political deals of the sort described by [historians] LaWanda and John Cox, James G. Randall, and Richard Nelson Current, but it is doubtful that these deals were nearly as important in passing the amendment as were the above-board decisions of War Democrats and border statesmen to take a new stance on the issue of slavery.” 9
One particular issue was a dispute over a railroad bill that Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner favored and some New Jersey interests opposed. Mr. Lincoln reportedly knew better than to try to pressure the prickly Sumner to withdraw his opposition in order to grease passage of the amendment. Ashley biographer Robert F. Horowitz wrote: “No direct evidence indicates that Sumner became involved in the behind-the-scenes manipulations, but on the day of the vote on the joint resolution, Democratic Congressman Andrew Rogers of New Jersey was absent; he was too ill to attend. Apparently, Samuel S. (‘Sunset’) Cox, the Ohio Democrat, helped keep Rogers at home. Secretary of State Seward and the highly organized lobby that worked at his direction should be credited with six votes for the resolution.”10
President Lincoln’s famous integrity was nearly imperilled. Historian James A. Rawley wrote: “On the day of the crucial House vote, January 31, 1865, Representative James M. Ashley, who had introduced the bill, sent a worried appeal to Lincoln. A rumor was circulating in the House that peace commissioners were en route to Washington, and the rumor ‘is being used against us.’ Ashley requested authorization to contradict the rumor. Lincoln promptly replied in a single sentence, ‘So far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.’ His reply was disingenuous, for Lincoln was aware that peace commissioners were en route to Fortress Monroe” in Virginia.11 A few days later, President Lincoln joined the talks – but not in Washington.
Congressman Ashley and President Lincoln had done their work well. When the votes were counted and the result announced, the House of Representatives erupted in bedlam. Vorenberg noted that among the blacks in the gallery was Charles Douglass, son of the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. “I wish that you could have been here,” the former Union soldier wrote his father, “such rejoicing I never before witnessed…(white people I mean).”12 War Department employee David Homer Bates wrote: “There was an exciting scene yesterday in Congress at the passage of the act. The people rose as if an electric shock had struck them & cheer after cheer rent the air. A national salute was at once fired in the City in honor of the Memorable event.”13
Illinois Congressman Isaac N. Arnold noted: “The personal friends of Mr. Lincoln, hastening to the White House, exchanged congratulations with him on the auspicious result. The passage of the resolution was not unexpected to him, and it filled his heart with joy. He saw in it the complete consummation of his own great work, the Emancipation Proclamation.”14 Even more gratifying was the speedy ratification of the amendment by his home state of Illinois the next day.
Vorenberg concluded: “With the passage of the amendment, a nation committed to freedom no longer had to face a Constitution that protected slavery. As Congressman [Cornelius] Cole told his wife, ‘we can now look other nations in the face without shame.’ Both inside and outside of Congress, various groups with diverse motives provided the final impetus for constitutional change.” The night after passage, President Lincoln himself called the newly amendment “a King’s cure for all the evils” of slavery – closing any loopholes from the Emancipation Proclamation. The New York Tribune reported that President Lincoln said the amendment “winds the whole thing up. He would repeat that it was the fitting if not indispensable adjunct to the consummation of the great game we are playing. He could not but congratulate all present, himself, the country and the whole world upon this great moral victory.”15

James Ely, American Historical Review. “In this well-researched volume, Michael Vorenberg traces the fortuitous events that led to the freedom amendment. Although there was growing emancipation sentiment in the North by 1863, there was no agreement as to how slavery should be eliminated. Moreover, as Vorenberg points out, the abolition of bondage did not necessary confer any rights on freed persons or establish racial equality. Even those who favored the amendment had diverse views about what further rights, if any, freedom entailed.”

More on the Author


  1. Michael Vorenberg, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment, p. 2.
  2. George Julian, Political Recollections, p. 288.
  3. James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction, p. 272.
  4. Michael Vorenberg, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment, p. 174.
  5. James G. Blaine, Twenty Years of Congressman from Lincoln to Garfield, Volume I, p. 534.
  6. Michael Vorenberg, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment, p. 194.
  7. Michael Vorenberg, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment, pp. 186-187.
  8. George S. Boutwell, Reminiscences of Sixty Years in Public Affairs, p. 310.
  9. Frank J. Williams, Judging Lincoln, p. 142.
  10. Robert F. Horowitz, The Great Impeacher: A Political Biography of James M. Ashley, p. 104.
  11. James A. Rawley, Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For, p. 206.
  12. Michael Vorenberg, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment, p. 207.
  13. Donald E Markle, editor, The Telegraph Goes to War: The Personal Diary of David Homer Bates, Lincoln’s Telegraph Operator, February 1, 1865, p. 188.
  14. Isaac N. Arnold, The History of Abraham Lincoln and the Overthrow of Slavery, p. 587.
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, Response to a Serenade, February 1, 1865 from New York Tribune, February 3, 1865, pp. 254-255.