This Week in History
January 31 - February 6, 1865
The 13th Amendment: Lincoln Outlaws Slavery
"This finishes the job," said President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 31, 1865, as Congress passed a bill calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would abolish and prohibit slavery. For two years, Lincoln had been working to put freedom for the slaves on a secure legal footing. The Emancipation Proclamation had freed only the slaves who were under the power of the Confederacy and were able to flee to the Union lines, and Lincoln believed that when the war ended, that Proclamation would become void. There was a further difficulty, for when the Proclamation became law on Jan. 1, 1863, there were many Union supporters who objected that the President had turned the war into a battle to free the slaves, not to save the Union.
Even in his home state of Illinois, there was simmering opposition. In August 1863, Lincoln wrote a letter to his political friends in Illinois, a letter which was intended to be widely circulated. After stating that the Proclamation was indeed a Constitutional document, having been issued by the Commander-in-Chief in a time of war, Lincoln noted that many of his best generals, some of whom were never counted as Abolitionists or Republicans, believed that the emancipation policy and the use of black soldiers constituted a heavy blow to the Rebellion.
Lincoln continued: "You say you will not fight to free Negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but no matter. Fight you, then, exclusively, to save the Union. I issued the Proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time then for you to declare you will not fight to free Negroes.
"I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the Negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever Negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just as much less for white soldiers to do in saving the Union. Does it appear otherwise to you? But Negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive, even the promise of freedom. And the promise, being made, must be kept."
In December of 1863, a Constitutional amendment to ban slavery had been proposed in the House; a similar one reached the floor of the Senate in January. The Senate passed it, but the House failed to give the bill a two-thirds majority, as all but four of the Democratic members of the House refused to vote for it. Lincoln was convinced, that if the measure were put to a popular vote, the American people would approve it. Therefore, he made it a central issue of his 1864 Presidential campaign.
Before the Republican Convention in June 1864, Lincoln sent for the chairman of the National Committee, Senator Morgan of New York, and told him, "I want you to mention in your speech, when you call the convention to order, as its keynote, and to put into the platform as the keystone, the amendment of the Constitution abolishing and prohibiting slavery forever."
The National Committee followed the President's policy and article three of the Republican platform read as follows: "Resolved, That as slavery was the cause, and now constitutes the strength, of this rebellion, and as it must be, 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 of the jurisdiction of the United States."
After his decisive victory over Gen. George B. McClellan in the November election, Lincoln addressed a lame-duck Congress in December 1864. He reminded the legislators that the American people, in reelecting him as President, had also voted for a Constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery. "Although the present is the same Congress," said Lincoln, referring to the 1863 Congress that had defeated the bill, "and nearly the same members, and without questioning the wisdom or patriotism of those who stood in opposition, I venture to recommend the reconstruction 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?"
Lincoln worked unceasingly to get the measure passed. He reached out to the Democrats and to border-state Congressmen, and worked closely with James Ashley of Ohio, the principal sponsor of the amendment in the House, to identify members who might be persuaded to support the legislation. For example, Lincoln had a long talk with Rep. James Rollins of Missouri, who had originally voted against the amendment, and appealed to him as a former Whig and a follower of "that great statesman, Henry Clay," to now support it. When Rollins said he would now vote for the amendment, Lincoln asked him to use his influence with the other Congressmen from Missouri, for "The passage of this amendment will clinch the whole subject." The President also assured Rollins that, "it will bring the war, I have no doubt, rapidly to a close."
As the 13th Amendment moved through Congress, the legislators were also debating a reconstruction bill submitted by Ashley of Ohio, as well as a bill, backed by President Lincoln, to create a new Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. This Freedmen's Bureau Act gave the Federal authorities guardianship over the recently emancipated slaves in order to protect them from exploitation by their former owners. In the final balloting on Jan. 31, more than two-thirds of the House voted for the 13th Amendment, and it was sent to the states for ratification. The House then sent the bill to Lincoln for his signature, and he signed it, with great satisfaction, on Feb. 1, even though some Senators pointed out that a Supreme Court decision of 1798 declared that Presidential approval was not required for Constitutional amendments.
On the night of Jan. 31, when news of the passage of the legislation reached the public, a large group of citizens came to the White House and celebrated by serenading the President. Lincoln's remarks to the serenaders were extemporaneous, and so there was no written speech to pass on to posterity, but the newspapermen took notes, including the reactions and comments of the listeners. One of the newspaper accounts reads as follows: "The President said he supposed the passage through Congress of the Constitutional amendment for the abolishment of Slavery throughout the United States, was the occasion to which he was indebted for the honor of this call. [Applause.]
"The occasion was one of congratulation to the country and to the whole world. But there is a task yet before usto go forward and consummate by the votes of the States that which Congress so nobly began yesterday. [Applause and cries 'They will do it,' &c.] He had the honor to inform those present that Illinois had already today done the work. [Applause.] Maryland was about half through; but he felt proud that Illinois was a little ahead. He thought this measure was a very fitting, if not an indispensable adjunct, to the winding up of the great difficulty. He wished the reunion of all the States perfected and so effected as to remove all causes of disturbance in the future; and to attain this end it was necessary that the original disturbing cause should, if possible, be rooted out.
"He thought all would bear him witness that he had never shrunk from doing all that he could to eradicate Slavery by issuing an emancipation proclamation. [Applause.] But that proclamation falls far short of what the amendment will be when fully consummated. A question might be raised whether the proclamation was legally valid. It might be added that it only aided those who came into our lines and that it was inoperative as to those who did not give themselves up, or that it would have no effect upon the children of the slaves born hereafter. In fact it would be urged that it did not meet the evil.
"But this amendment is a King's cure for all the evils. [Applause.] It 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."