The Emancipation Proclamation & the 13th Amendment

There was, of course, from the first no doubt whatever that the Senate would pass the constitutional amendment, the political classification of that body being thirty-six Republicans, five Conditional Unionists, and nine Democrats. Not only was the whole Republican strength, thirty-six votes, cast in its favor, but two Democrats, Reverdy Johnson of Maryland and James W. Nesmith of Oregon, with a political wisdom far in advance of their party, also voted for it, giving more than the two-thirds required by the Constitution.

When, however, the joint resolution went to the House of Representatives there was such a formidable party strength arrayed against it as to foreshadow its failure. The party classification of the House stood one hundred and two Republicans, seventy-five Democrats, and nine from the border States, leaving but little chance of obtaining the required two-thirds in favor of the measure. Nevertheless there was sufficient Republican strength to secure its discussion; and when it came up on the 31st of May the first vote showed seventy-six to fifty-five against rejecting the joint resolution.

We may infer that the conviction of the present hopelessness of the measure greatly shortened the debate upon it. The question occupied the House only on three different days the 3ist of May, when it was taken up, and the 4th and 5th of June. The speeches in opposition all came from Democrats; the speeches in its favor all came from Republicans, except one. From its adoption the former predicted the direst evils to the Constitution and the Republic; the latter the most beneficial results in the restoration of the country to peace and the fulfillment of the high destiny intended for it by its founders. Upon the final question of its passage the vote stood: yeas, ninety-three; nays, sixty-five; absent or not voting, twenty-three. Of those voting in favor of the resolution eighty-seven were Republicans and four were Democrats. Those voting against it were all Democrats. The resolution, not having secured a two-thirds vote, was thus lost; seeing which Mr. Ashley, Republican, who had the measure in charge, changed his vote so that he might, if occasion arose, move its reconsideration.

The ever-vigilant public opinion of the loyal States, intensified by the burdens and anxieties of the war, took up this far-reaching question of abolishing slavery by constitutional amendment with an interest fully as deep as that manifested by Congress. Before the joint resolution had failed in the House of Representatives the issue was already transferred to discussion and prospective decision in a new forum.

When on the 7th of June, 1864, the National Republican Convention met in Baltimore, the two most vital thoughts which animated its members were the re-nomination of President Lincoln and the success of the constitutional amendment. The first was recognized as a popular decision needing only the formality of republican government, justice and the national safety demand its Litter and complete extirpation from the soil of the Republic; and that while we uphold and maintain the acts and proclamations by which the Government in its own defense has aimed a death blow at this gigantic evil, we are in favor, furthermore, of such an amendment to the Constitution, to be made by the people, in conformity with its provisions, as shall terminate and forever prohibit the existence of slavery within the limits or the jurisdiction of the United States.

We have related elsewhere how upon this and the other declarations of the platform:

Resolved. That as slavery was the cause and now constitutes the strength of this rebellion, and as it must always and everywhere hostile to the principles of republican government, justice and the national safety demand its utter and complete extirpation from the soil of the Republic; and that while we uphold and maintain the acts and proclamations by which the Government in its own defense has aimed a death blow at this gigantic evil, we are in favor, furthermore, of such an amendment to the Constitution, to be made by the people, in conformity with its provisions, as shall terminate and forever prohibit the existence of slavery within the limits or the jurisdiction of the United States.

Upon this and other declarations of the platform, the Republican party went to battle and gained an overwhelming victory a popular majority of 411,281, an electoral majority of 191, and a House of Representatives of 138 Unionists to 35 Democrats. In view of this result, the President was able to take up the question with confidence among his official recommendations; and in the annual message which he transmitted to Congress on the 6th of December, 1864, he urged upon the members whose terms were about to expire, the propriety of at once carrying into effect the clearly expressed popular will. Said He:

At the last session of Congress a proposed amendment of the Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the United States, passed the Senate, but failed, for lack of the requisite two-thirds vote, in the House of Representatives. Although the present is the same Congress, and nearly the same members, and without questioning the wisdom or patriotism of those who stood in opposition, I venture to recommend the reconsideration and passage of the measure at the present session. Of course the abstract question is not changed; but, an intervening election shows, almost certainly, that the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not. Hence, there is only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States for their action. And, as it is to so go at all events, may we not agree that the sooner the better? It is not claimed that the election has imposed a duty any further than, as an additional element to be considered, their judgment may be affected by it. It is the voice of the people, now for the first time heard upon the question. In a great national crisis like ours unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable — almost indispensable. And yet, no approach to unanimity is attainable unless some deference shall be paid to the will of the majority, simply because it is the will of the majority. In this case, the common end is the maintenance of the Union; and, among the means to secure that end, such will, through the election, is most clearly declared in favor of such constitutional amendment.

On the 15th of December, Mr. Ashley gave notice that he would, on the 6th of January, 1865, call up the constitutional amendment for reconsideration; and accordingly on the day appointed he opened the new debate upon it in an earnest speech. General discussion followed from time to time, occupying perhaps half the days of the month of January. As at the previous session, the Republicans all favored, while the Democrats mainly opposed it, but the important exceptions among the latter showed what immense gains the proposition had made in popular opinion and in congressional willingness to recognize and embody it. The logic of events had become more powerful than party creed or strategy. For fifteen years the Democratic party had stood as sentinel and bulwark to slavery; and yet, despite its alliance and championship, the peculiar institution was being consumed like dry leaves in the fire of war. For a whole decade it had been defeated in every great contest of congressional debate and legislation. It had withered in popular elections, been paralyzed by confiscation laws, crushed by Executive decrees, trampled upon by marching Union armies. More notable than all, the agony of dissolution had come upon it in its final stronghold the constitutions of the slave States. Local public opinion had throttled it in West Virginia, in Missouri, in Arkansas, in Louisiana, in Maryland; and the same spirit of change was upon Tennessee, and even showing itself in Kentucky.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *