The Thirteenth Amendment: The Vote

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

The Lincoln administration, led by Secretary of State William H. Seward, lobbied various Democrats thought to be willing to support the abolition amendment. These congressmen were promised prized government jobs and favors in exchange for their votes. The effort seemed to be paying off, but then rumors of peace talks threatened to kill the amendment.

Lincoln had dispatched Seward to Fort Monroe a few hours before the vote was scheduled to begin, confident that House Republicans had enough votes to get the necessary two-thirds majority. But Democrats who had voiced support for the measure hesitated now that peace talks might end the war. They feared that a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery could offend the Confederate envoys and break up the talks, and the war would go on indefinitely.

Congressman James M. Ashley, the amendment’s sponsor, wrote a frantic note to Lincoln as voting time neared: “The report is in circulation in the House that peace Commissioners are on their way or are in the city, and is being used against us. If it is true, I fear we shall lose the bill. Please authorize me to contradict it, if not true.” Lincoln responded, “So far as I know, there are no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be in it.” Lincoln was correct in that no commissioners were in Washington, but he conveniently failed to acknowledge that they were within Federal lines.

In the end, the two-thirds majority needed to start the ratification process was secured, as the vote was 119 in favor and 56 opposed. Of the 80 House Democrats, 16 voted in favor (14 of whom would not be in the new Congress later that year and thus did not risk their reelection chances), and eight abstained, thus allowing the bill to pass. A swing of just five votes could have killed the amendment.

The speaker announced, “The constitutional majority of two-thirds having voted in the affirmative, the joint resolution is passed.” The Congressional Globe reported that upon this announcement, “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…”

The House of Representatives upon passage of the Thirteenth Amendment | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 425, 18 Feb 1865

Another person reported that there was “an uncontrollable outburst of enthusiasm.” A Republican congressman wrote, “Members joined in the shouting and kept it up for some minutes. Some embraced one another, others wept like children. I have felt, ever since the vote, as if I were in a new country.” Those celebrating in the House gallery included several black men and women who had not been allowed in the House chamber until last year. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered a 100-gun salute fired to commemorate the amendment’s passage, and the House adjourned for the rest of the day “in honor of this immortal and sublime event.”

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. This failed ratification 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 to place restrictions on individuals rather than the government.

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

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 211-13; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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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