The Thirteenth Amendment: Debate Begins

January 9, 1865 – The U.S. House of Representatives opened debate on a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery that had been defeated last year.

The abolition amendment had passed the Senate in 1864 but failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to pass the House. In his December message to Congress, President Abraham Lincoln declared that since the newly elected Congress made passage of the amendment “only a question of time,” the current lame-duck Congress should revisit it. This would demonstrate northern solidarity against the Confederacy and show that the border states would no longer side with the South on the slavery issue.

Rep. J.M. Ashley of Ohio | Image Credit:

Republican Congressman James M. Ashley of Ohio reintroduced the amendment on the House floor in early January, announcing, “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 Radicals who sought more punitive measures against the South. Most Democrats opposed the measure, and a contentious debate took place throughout the month.

Democrats warned their fellow party members there would be political fallout if they supported the amendment. However, a significant change occurred when Moses F. Odell of New York announced he would change his previous “no” vote 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.’”

The New York Times reported that Odell gave “a convincing argument in favor of this measure, and an able appeal to the Democratic party to throw aside all partisan feeling and sustain it, thereby setting at rest forever the subject which has caused so much agitation and excitement in our national counsels.” Lincoln rewarded Odell with the lucrative political job of New York navy agent.

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.” Unionist John A. Kasson of Iowa countered, “you will never, never, have reliable peace in this country that that institution exists, the perpetual occasion of moral, intellectual, and physical warfare.”

Democrat Samuel S. Cox of Ohio declared, “Whatever it may be termed, I am opposed to compounding powers in the Federal Government.” This amendment “sought to consolidate the powers of the States, and tended toward monarchy and despotism… it would tend to disturb the balance of power between the States, and destroy our peculiar representative system.”

Charles Eldridge of Wisconsin warned that “the adoption of the amendment would afford the rebel leaders another topic to arouse the lukewarm, raise additional armies and prolong the war.” This measure would best be “made in time of calmness, in a fraternal spirit and with kindness, with a view to the establishment of the peace of the Union in all its parts.”

Another Democrat agreed:

“When the sky shall again be clear over our heads, a peaceful sun illuminating the land, and our great household of states all at home in harmony once more, then will be the time to consider what changes, if any, this generation desire to make in the work of Washington, Madison, and the revered sages of our antiquity.”

Fernando Wood of New York opposed the amendment on racial grounds:

“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?”

Unionist Austin King, a Missouri slaveholder, declared support for the amendment:

“Slavery had been the cause of disturbance for the last thirty years, and if it must perish, slaveholders could not, complain, as they had been the architects of their own ruin. Slavery has been the means by which the Southern leaders have wheeled into the line of insurrection, and for this reason, it has lost the support and sympathy it once possessed. Slavery had been a constant source of irritation, and in order to secure the blessings of peace, the great question of its further continuance should be submitted to the people for their decision.”

Another Missouri congressman and former slaveholder, James Rollins, declared:

“I am no longer the owner of a slave, and I thank God for it. If the giving up of my slaves without complaint shall be a contribution upon my part, to promote the public good, to uphold the Constitution of the United States, to restore peace and preserve this Union, if I had owned a thousand slaves, they would most cheerfully have been given up. I say with all my heart, let them go; but let them not go without a sense of feeling and a proper regard on my part for the future of themselves and their offspring… the peculiar friends of slavery have controlled the government for much the greater part of the time since its establishment, and but for their own wickedness and folly might have saved the institution, and had their full share in its management for many years to come… we can never have an entire peace as long as the institution of slavery remains as one of the recognized institutions in this country.”

John McBride of Oregon said, “Slavery, too long pursuing its criminal practices, demanded sentence and execution, without benefit of clergy.” Republican (and future President) James A. Garfield announced, “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.” He added:

“We have suffered for slavery more than all the plagues of Egypt. More than the first born of every household has been taken. We still harden our hearts, and refuse to let the people go. The scourge still continues, nor do I expect it to cease until we obey the behests of the Father of men. We are about to ascertain the national will by an amendment to the Constitution. If the gentlemen opposite will yield to the voice of God and humanity and vote for it, I verily believe the sword of the destroying angel will be stayed, and this people be reunited. If we still harden our hearts, and blood must still flow, may the ghosts of the slaughtered victims sit heavily upon the souls of those who cause it.”

Debate continued throughout the month, leading to the final vote on the last day of January.



Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 211-13;; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 512-13; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15635-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 606-07, 620-23, 630; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 686-90; McGinty, Brian, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 752-53; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 839

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