Go to the homepage...

Congressional Proposals and Senate Passage // The Election of 1864
Passage by the House // Ratification and Results

Although the election of 1864 had not been an obvious referendum on the Thirteenth Amendment, the results were afterward claimed as a mandate for passage of the measure.  In the annual presidential message to Congress of December 6, 1864, Lincoln called for the current House to pass the Thirteenth Amendment (rather than wait for the newly elected Congress, which was not scheduled to met until December 1865, a year away).  In so doing, the president claimed that the popular will for the amendment was reflected in the election results.  That December, Lincoln also appointed Salmon P. Chase, a leading civil rights advocate for black Americans, as chief justice of the U. S. Supreme Court.  Senate confirmation gave Lincoln five appointments on the Supreme Court, which allowed Republicans to rest easier that their federal policies concerning emancipation, the Civil War, and Reconstruction would not be ruled unconstitutional. 

Unlike Lincoln’s previous inactivity and silence while Congress first considered an abolition amendment in early 1864, after his reelection the president lobbied intensely for swift passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  His primary concern was the war, and he believed that emancipation undermined Confederate morale.  The president explained to Congressman James Rollins, a Constitutional Unionist from the Border State of Missouri, “I am very anxious that the war be brought to a close at the earliest possible date … I don’t believe this can be accomplished as long as those fellows down South can rely on the border states to help them; but if the members of the border states would unite, at least enough of them to pass the … [Thirteenth] amendment … [Confederate leaders] would soon see that they could not expect much help from that quarter.”   

Secretary of State William Henry Seward and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who oversaw distribution of the largest number of federal patronage jobs, also lobbied for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Congressman James Ashley of Ohio, who was steering the measure through the House, urged his fellow Republicans to promote its passage in their home districts over the holiday recess.  In the post-election period, Congress received numerous appeals for the Thirteenth Amendment from constituents, state legislatures, and state conventions.  

The Border States were already moving toward emancipation.  On September 18, Maryland voters had approved a new state constitution abolishing slavery, which took effect on November 1, 1864.  A double-page cartoon by Thomas Nast in the December 3, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly includes an inset circular on the upper left celebrating the freeing of slaves in Maryland.  On January 11, 1865, delegates to the Missouri State Constitutional Convention overwhelmingly approved immediate emancipation in their state.  Even the Confederacy was considering partial emancipation through a proposal to arm some slaves and grant them freedom after their military service. 

Although circumstances for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment became more favorable in the post-election period, the measure still faced an uphill battle.  Discussion of related issues in the U.S. Senate during early January was reported in the January 21, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published January 11).  In proposing a bill on January 5 to free the families of black servicemen, Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts expressed his doubt that the Thirteenth Amendment would be enacted.  The items in that “Domestic Intelligence” column for January 6, 7, and 9 reveal that the House was focusing debate on the abolition amendment.  On January 13, Congressman Ashley tabled discussion on the topic until January 31 so that proponents could have time to find enough votes for passage.  President Lincoln and his administration redoubled their lobbying efforts, and the amendment was endorsed by Tammany Hall, the major Democratic political machine in New York City.  The switch to support by Kentucky Democrat James Guthrie, former Treasury secretary and senator-elect, was influential on some who had previously opposed the measure. 

On January 31, 1865, the House resumed discussion before a standing-room-only crowd in the galleries above the floor.  When the vote was taken that day, the Thirteenth Amendment achieved a two-vote margin above the needed two-thirds majority, 119-56.  The galleries erupted in boisterous applause, which was then joined by congressman on the House floor.  In the final vote, all 86 Republicans had voted in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment, along with 15 Democrats, 14 Unconditional Unionists, and 4 Union men; opposition came from 50 Democrats and 6 Union men.   

Although a president’s signature was not required, Lincoln signed the proposed Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in the entire nation and it was sent to the states for ratification.  In signing the document, Lincoln had both followed and countered the example of his Democratic predecessor, President James Buchanan, who had signed the previously proposed Thirteenth Amendment (the Corwin Amendment), which had unsuccessfully sought to protect slavery at the onset of the Civil War. 

In the February 18, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published February 8), a poem, “Free America,” celebrated passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  On the same page, editor George William Curtis observed that popular sentiment in the North had finally come around to the understanding that slavery was incompatible with Union and was “the root of civil war.”  He chastised those in the House who voted against the measure, comparing them to British and French autocrats of the past.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  December 17, 1864, p. 803, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

2)  December 24, 1864, p. 817
illustration, “The Chief Justices of the United States”

3)  December 3, 1864, pp. 776-777
cartoon, “Thanksgiving Day,” Thomas Nast

4)  January 21, 1865, p. 35, c. 2
“Domestic Intelligence” column

5)  February 18, 1865, p. 97
illustration, “Scene in the House on the Passage of the Proposition to Amend the Constitution, January 31, 1865”

6)  February 11, 1865, p. 83, c.3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

7)  “Corwin Amendment” section of the commentary

8)  February 18, 1865, p. 98, c. 1
poem, “Free America”

9)  February 18, 1865, p. 98, c. 2-3
editorial, “The Amendment”

Go to the homepage...

Congressional Proposals and Senate Passage // The Election of 1864
Passage by the House // Ratification and Results




Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to