Abolishing Slavery in America

January 31, 1865 – The U.S. House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment permanently abolishing slavery in America.

Celebrating the end of slavery | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Celebrating the end of slavery | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The amendment had passed the Senate in 1864 but failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the House. In his December 1864 message to Congress, President Abraham Lincoln declared that since the newly elected Congress slated to take office in late 1865 made passage of the amendment “only a question of time,” the current lame-duck Congress should reconsider approving the measure to demonstrate northern political solidarity against the Confederacy, and show that border states would no longer ally with the South on the slavery issue.[1]

Accordingly, Republican Congressman James M. Ashley of Ohio reintroduced the amendment on the House floor in early January 1865. Ashley announced, “Mr. Speaker, if slavery is wrong and criminal, as the great body of enlightened Christian men admit, it is certainly our duty to abolish it, if we have the power.” Republicans generally supported the amendment, especially the so-called Radical Republicans who sought more punitive measures against the South. Most Democrats opposed the measure, sparking heated debate throughout the month.[2]

Democrats warned their fellow party members they would suffer political consequences if they supported the amendment. However, a significant change occurred when Democrat Moses F. Odell of New York announced he would change his previous vote of “no” to “yes,” declaring, “The South by rebellion has absolved the Democratic Party at the north from all obligation to stand up longer for the defense of its ‘cornerstone.’” Grateful for the change, President Lincoln granted Odell the lucrative political job of New York navy agent.[3]

Other Democrats remained opposed. Robert Mallory of Kentucky said that “the Constitution does not authorize an amendment to be made by which any State or citizen shall be divested of acquired rights of property or of established political franchises.” Fernando Wood of New York asserted, “The Almighty has fixed the distinction of the races; the Almighty has made the black man inferior, and, sir, by no legislation, by no partisan success, by no revolution, by no military power, can you wipe out this distinction. You may make the black man free, but when you have done that what have you done?” And Samuel S. Cox of Ohio declared, “Whatever it may be termed, I am opposed to compounding powers in the Federal Government.”[4]

Republican (and future President) James A. Garfield countered, “Mr. Speaker, we shall never know why slavery dies so hard in this Republic and in this Hall, till we know why sin outlives disaster, and Satan is immortal…” Radical leader Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania argued that slavery was “the worst institution upon earth, one which is a disgrace to man and would be an annoyance to the infernal spirits.”[5]

The January 31 vote was 119 in favor and 56 opposed with eight abstentions, thus attaining the two-thirds majority needed for passage. According to the Congressional Globe, upon announcement of the final tally, “The members of the Republican side of the House instantly sprang to their feet, and, regardless of parliamentary rules, applauded with cheers and clapping of hands. The example was followed by male spectators in the galleries, who waved their hats and cheered long and loud, while the ladies… rose in their seats and waved their handkerchiefs…” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered a 100-gun salute fired to commemorate the event.[6]

This was the second version of the “Thirteenth” Amendment to the Constitution. The first version had passed in March 1861 and prohibited the federal government from interfering with slavery where it already existed. The states failed to ratify that version because the southern states had already seceded. Ironically, the southern secession prompted northern politicians to place even greater restrictions on slavery until finally abolishing it altogether. This became the first constitutional amendment restricting the people and not the government.[7]

This new amendment satisfied President Lincoln, who feared that his Emancipation Proclamation would be overturned by the courts after the war because it was admittedly a wartime measure only with no real legal basis. State legislatures soon began debating and voting on the amendment’s ratification, which would make Lincoln’s proclamation permanent.[8]

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  • [1] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 606-07; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 686-90
  • [2] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 620
  • [3] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 621; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 686-90
  • [4] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 621-23
  • [5] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 622-23
  • [6] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 211-13; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15635-15645
  • [7] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15635-15665
  • [8] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 630
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2 thoughts on “Abolishing Slavery in America

  1. […] U.S. House of Representatives approved the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permanently abolishing slavery, 119 to […]

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  2. […] if the states stopped rebelling by April 1, and the other half would be paid if they ratified the Thirteenth Amendment by July […]

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