On this day in 1865, the United States House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by a vote of 119 to 56. The amendment abolished slavery. Although the Senate had already approved the legislation the previous April, the House had voted it down in June before finally approving it. Lincoln signed the amendment on February 1 and then waited for the states to ratify it.
I guess because I have been reading political speeches of late—this one, in the Senate of Virginia, was courageously antislavery, while this one, in the House of Representatives, was stubbornly and sometimes eloquently pro—I was curious to know what the debate was like on this momentous day. What struck me right away is how little acknowledged were the interests of actual enslaved men and women. Archibald McAllister, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, had voted against the amendment the first time around but in the face of Confederate intransigence, changed his mind: “It must therefore be destroyed,” he told the House, referring not to the “peculiar institution” but to Jefferson Davis‘s government, “and in voting for the present measure I cast my vote against the corner stone of the southern confederacy, and declare eternal war against the enemies of my country.” Mr. McAllister likely was referring to the Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens‘s famous Cornerstone Speech (1861), in which he declared slavery to be the cornerstone of the Confederacy.
One gets the sense that if freedom had been the cornerstone of the Confederacy, then Mr. McAllister might well have been against it!
The next speaker to rise was a fellow Democrat from Pennsylvania, Alexander Hamilton Coffroth. “Mr. Speaker,” he began, “I speak not to-day for or against slavery.” Mr. Coffroth was a lawyer, and his concern, it seems, was only the law. Which meant that he went on for quite awhile, lecturing on what he supposed the Constitution would allow and not allow (would it allow an amendment undoing the republic and establishing an autocracy, for instance? of course not!) before explaining that his “no” vote in June had been because the amendment “was taking away the property of the people of the States that remained true to the Union.” But then Missouri and Maryland abolished slavery. Slaves were no longer property—problem solved!
Then Mr. Coffroth reminds us of the political troubles caused by slavery over the years, while making a special appeal for his own party:
Mr. Speaker, I desire above all things that the Democratic party be again placed in power. The condition of the country needs the wise counsel of the Democracy … The question of slavery has been a fruitful theme for the opponents of the Democracy. It has breathed into existence fanaticism, and feeds it with such meat as to make it ponderous in growth. It must soon be strangled or the nation is lost. I propose to do this by removing from the political arena that which has given it life and strength.
One gets the sense that if Republicans had been for slavery, then Mr. Coffroth would have been an abolitionist!
Click on the pages below to read for yourself this portion of the House debate.
It was not until a third Pennsylvania Democrat rose from his desk, this time (ironically) to speak against the amendment, that actual black people came into a brief focus. After lamenting that he had to speak at all (“I had hoped that I would be permitted to close my short career upon this floor without claiming any of the time or attention of the House”) and then acknowledging the House’s right to abolish slavery, William H. Miller demanded to know what then? “Abolish slavery,” he said, “and no man among them [i.e., the amendment’s proponents] has pretended to show what we are going to do with the freedmen, except that, as good Christians, it will become our duty to feed and clothe them.”
One gets the sense that if it hadn’t been his duty as a good Christian to feed and clothe the poor, then …
IMAGES: Top: Untitled painting by Janie McGee; bottom: a telegram sent from John Nicolay to President Abraham Lincoln on January 31, 1865, that reads: “Constitutional amendment just passed by 119 for to 56 votes against” (Library of Congress); Alexander Hamilton Coffroth, Democratic member of the House from Pennsylvania; “Scene in the House on the Passage of the Proposition to Amend the Constitution, January 31, 1865,” Harper’s Weekly, February 18, 1865