Emancipation Amendment Debated in Congress

January 9, 1865 (Monday)

While the South was debating whether or not they should force slaves into the ranks of the Confederate army, the North was clashing over whether or not to fully emancipate them with the Thirteenth Amendment.

Moses Odell
Moses Odell

Moses Odell of Brooklyn made what the New York Times called “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.”

The Democrats had naturally opposed Lincoln and many of his policies, but now even that seemed to be changing. His his speech, Odell, who had originally been against such a measure, declared: “The South by rebellion has absolved the Democratic part at the North from all obligation to stand up longer for the defense of its ‘cornerstone.'”

Though simply because Odell, himself a lame duck representative, was now in support of a permanent emancipation, did not mean the whole of his party was now along for the ride. Robert Mallory from Kentucky remained steadfast in his view that slaves were acquired property. “The Constitution does not authorize an amendment to be made by which any State or citizen shall be divested of acquired right of property or of established political franchises.”

Mallory had supported the Emancipation Proclamation “as a means of prosecuting this war.” However, he could not believe that now extended beyond the war. Lincoln’s original proclamation necessarily viewed the slaves as property to be confiscated by the military. The proposed amendment necessarily views the slaves as human beings, and that was an entirely different thing.

And like the nation, Kentucky herself was divided on slavery. George H. Yeaman of the Unionist Party, gave “voice to the aspirations of loyal Kentucky, made a powerful and eloquent appeal in behalf of the amendment.” Yeaman, like Mallory, had railed against Lincoln’s proclamation, but now that he too was not reelected, he switched his views, siding with Lincoln.

The New York Times speculated that “this evening that several Democratic members will be brought into line on this question, and there is well grounded hope for the passage of the bill.”

The following day, John A. Kasson, a member of Iowa’s Union Party, gave a rebuttle to Mallory’s position, holding, “you will never, never, have reliable peace in this country that that institution exists, the perpetual occasion of moral, intellectual, and physical warfare.”

John Kasson
John Kasson

Unlike the Democrats, much of the Union Party was now backing the amendment. At this convention in June, they “challenged the entire nation to its consideration by declaring that the best interests of the country required that it shall be adopted,” and he chided Mallory’s Democrats for not even discussing it. Though Mallory contended that such an amendment was itself unconstitutional, Kasson argued that “there was sufficient argument, and justification, and testimony of the Democratic fathers to show the proposition now pending was a measure of just statesmanship.”

From the start of the country, slavery had always been an issue, “this very subject of slavery was considered a legitimate subject for consideration.” A democracy, he argued, “was obedience to the will of the people constitutionally.” The people, affirmed Kasson, wanted this amendment.

Robert Mallory
Robert Mallory

He also maintained that “the uniform rule had been emancipation without compensation, and it was a modern heresy that a slave is property as much as your horse, your ox or your ass.” He admitted that the country’s founders did not believe the same way, but times had drastically changed.

As a rebuttle, a Democrat from Indiana spoke up, reminding him that “the Republican majority heretofore passed a resolution declaring that the Federal Government has no power to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States.”

Kasson conceded the point, but maintained that this was, too, a different time, insisting that they had the right to amend the Constitution to end slavery.

A Democrat from Ohio, Samuel Cox, agreed, two-thirds of the States could certainly amend the Constitution, but then “two-thirds of the States could even erect a monarchy.” Cox was opposed to the amendment as it “sought to consolidate the powers of the States, and tended toward monarchy and depotism”

Kasson asked Cox whether or not he would be in favor of allowing the people to vote upon it.

Cox replied, “I would give them the opportunity if I did not believe -”

“-They would pass it,” Kasson cut in with rounds of laughter following. But no, Cox repeated himself. He would be in favor of such a vote if he did not believe “it would tend to disturb the balance of power between the States, and destroy our peculiar representative system.”

Kasson deplored such a thought. Democracy, even a representative democracy, needed the peoples’ voice. This modern democracy “distrusted the instincts of the people, while ancient democracy trusted the people.” It was a return to the ancient that Kasson was seeking.

Later, Fernando Wood, a Democrat from New York, unleashed his thoughts upon the House:
“The Almighty has fixed the distinction of the races; the Almighty has made the black man inferior, and sire, 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?”

Other Democrats generally agreed, but spoke more to “the reserved rights of the States to control and manage their peculiar institutions in their own way and destroy the balance of power.”

Group photo of the 38th Congress.
Group photo of the 38th Congress.

Some, like Charles Eldridge of Wisconsin worried that “the adoption of the amendment would afford the rebel leaders another topic to arouse the lukewarm, raise additional armies and prolong the war.” He wished for all such amendments to 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.”

Surprisingly, Austin King, a Democrat-turned-Unionist from Missouri, was a slaveholder, and not long ago a delegate to the Missouri Slave Owners Convention, voiced one of the day’s strongest oppositions to the institution:
“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.”

Closing out the day, Oregon’s only representative, John McBride, a Republican, colorfully stated: “Slavery, too long pursuing its criminal practices, demanded sentence and execution, without benefit of clergy.”

These debates were, of course, far from over. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, a Constitutional Convention abolished slavery in the state. It would be ratified by a popular vote the following month.1



  1. Sources: New York Times January 10-11, 1865; Speech of Robert Mallory, May 22, 1862; Speech by George Yeaman, December 18, 1862. []
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