January 31, 1865 (Tuesday)
The Constitutional amendment outlawing slavery had been introduced into the US congress in late 1863. Over the ensuing year, the item was debated, rebuffed, and further debated by both houses. It was in April that the Senate approved the amendment, but it had languished then in the House since June, when it was defeated.
Though it had won the simple majority, it had failed to gain the two-thirds majority needed. And though it would be further debated, it seemed as if it would have to wait for the new session of Congress. That it did, and it was brought up again until January 6th. And so once more came the rhetoric, tired and chewed.
“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,” spoke one opposed to the amendment, “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.”
Most, of course, were opposed to slavery and in favor of the amendment. A Representative from Vermont told a folksy story of a “good old judge” from fifty years ago, who told a slave owner who presented a bill of sale as proof of his ownership of a black man – “Show me a bill of sale from God Almighty, and your title will be recognized.” He understood that the war did not need to end for the bill to pass, for when it did, “the beautiful statue of liberty which now crowns the majestic dome above our heads may look north and south, east and west, upon a free nation, untarnished by aught inconsistent with freedom; redeemed, regenerated, and disenthralled by the genius of universal emancipation.”
But it wasn’t just New Englanders who were for the measure. Congressman James Rollins of Missouri had once been a slave owner. “I am no longer the owner of a slave,” he told his peers, “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 own 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.”
Rollins saw this a essential to allowing the Rebellious South back into the fold. For too long “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.”
He understood that “we can never have an entire peace as long as the institution of slavery remains as one of the recognized institutions in this country.”
As the time for a vote neared, radical abolitionist and Pennsylvanian lawyer, Thaddius Stevens railed in his usual fair:
“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.”
On this date, came the vote, and none knew for sure how it would fall. The anxiety was dripping from the walls and as the tally was counted, the room fell to silence. What would the Democrats do? Their votes for the amendment were essential, and they had been coy in voicing how they might be remembered. But when one, and then another and still another voted “aye,” the galleries erupted in a cacophony of applause.
When all was counted, the ayes held 119 votes, and the nays, all conservative Democrats, but fifty-six.
“The constitutional majority of two-thirds having voted in the affirmative, the joint resolution is passed,” announced the speaker, and there was “an uncontrollable outburst of enthusiasm.” The Republicans sprang to the feet in jubilation. And with that, the House adjourned to the roar of artillery shot in celebration of the event.
The next evening, Lincoln was serenaded at the White House, and gave a short, informal speech.
“The job is ended,” he spoke. “The occasion is one of congratulation, and I cannot but congratulate all present, myself, the country, and the whole world upon this great moral victory.”
But, of course, the job was not quite ended. The states still had to ratify the amendment. This work would begin immediately, and by the end of February, eighteen states would have voted in its favor. However, it would not be until December that the three-fourths majority needed would be attained and the amendment put into law.
Following its passage, a handful of states, such as Oregon and California, lent their support before the close of the year. For others, it would take much longer. Delaware wouldn’t approve it until 1901. Kentucky, not until 1976, and Mississippi would not until 2013.1
- Sources: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Isaac Newton Arnold; Congressional Globe Vol. 51; A Political History of Slavery by William Henry Smith. [↩]