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

While President Lincoln promised to uphold the Emancipation Proclamation and other wartime emancipation measures, Congress took steps to ensure that the institution of slavery was abolished permanently in all the states.  In order to make certain that future enslavement did not occur and to protect emancipation from modification or nullification by any president, Congress, Supreme Court, or state government, advocates of abolition concluded that a constitutional amendment was necessary.   

Amending the U.S. Constitution was an uncommon occurrence.  The then-current twelve amendments had all been adopted within the first 15 years of the republic operating under the Constitution:  the first ten—the Bill of Rights—were ratified in 1791, the Eleventh in 1795, and the Twelfth in 1804.  In the Antebellum Era (the decades before the Civil War), several amendments protecting slavery were proposed, but very few were suggested for abolishing the institution.  Many Antebellum Americans on both sides of the slavery question revered the Constitution as it was and saw only the need to interpret it correctly (however they defined that), not to change it.  The secession crisis of December 1860–March 1861 finally prompted Americans to consider more seriously the amendment option.  However, as in the Antebellum Era, virtually all of the proposals during the secession crisis protected slavery. 

The Civil War gradually increased the percentage of white Northerners who favored abolition, whether as an act of military necessity, revenge on the South, or moral justice.  On December 14, 1863, Congressman James Ashley, Republican of Ohio, introduced a bill in support of a constitutional amendment to prohibit slavery in the entire United States.  It was the first antislavery amendment proposed by a congressman since John Quincy Adams in 1839.  Soon after, Congressman James Wilson, Republican of Iowa, introduced a similar proposal to end slavery by constitutional amendment.  At first, there was little press attention to the issue, even though there was a popular surge in various organizations petitioning Congress in the winter of 1863-1864 favoring some type of abolition amendment.  Congressional actions detailed each week in the “Domestic Intelligence” column of Harper’s Weekly contained references to petitions for abolishing slavery nationwide, but did not mention either Ashley’s or Wilson’s proposed abolition amendment.

Although opposition to slavery was associated with the Republican Party, a faction of War Democrats not only supported wartime emancipation policies but also became favorable to a constitutional amendment abolishing the institution.  On January 11, 1864, Senator John Henderson of Missouri, a War Democrat, submitted a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.  The Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Illinois Republican Lyman Trumbull, began considering the various versions of the abolition amendment.  On February 8, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a leading Radical Republican, submitted a constitutional amendment to not only abolish slavery but also guarantee equality under the law.  Two days later, spurred partly in reaction to Sumner’s more radical proposal, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported to the full Senate an abolition amendment combining the drafts by Ashley, Wilson, and Henderson. 

In the February 27, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published February 17), editor George William Curtis argued that had Senator Stephen Douglas lived, he would have endorsed amending the Constitution to abolish slavery.  Douglas had authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which had opened the Western territories to slavery, and he had been the presidential nominee of the Northern wing of the Democratic Party in 1860.  He had strongly opposed secession and backed the Union once the Civil War began.  He died on June 3, 1861.  The last paragraphs of the editorial harshly criticized Peace Democrats, such as Clement Vallandigham and Fernando Wood, who advocated a truce and negotiated settlement with the Confederacy.   

In fact, in mid- and late-February, the proposed Thirteenth Amendment was endorsed by some prominent War Democrats, including New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett Sr., who called for the Democratic Party to embark on a “new departure” by shedding its pro-slavery image; Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland, a former U.S. Attorney General; and, as expected, Senator John Henderson of Missouri, whose own draft had influenced the final committee version.  It was the respected Reverdy Johnson’s endorsement that first made the press begin paying closer attention to the proposed abolition amendment.  On February 18, Congressman James Brooks of New York became the first notable Peace Democrat to back the Thirteenth Amendment (although he later changed his position and opposed it by the end of the year).   

In the March 12, 1864 issue (published March 2), editor Curtis agreed with Brooks’s conclusion that slavery must be ended.  The Harper’s Weekly commentary listed euphemisms used to avoid the word “slavery” and hide the cruelty of the institution.  Such polite but misleading expressions included “persons held in labor,” “involuntary servitude,” and, in a recent joint resolution of the Confederate Congress, “the selected type of social characteristics.”  Curtis combined the euphemism of “selected type” and Brooks’s remark that slavery had been “thrown into pi” for the clever title of his editorial, “Type in Pi.”  The title and Brooks’s phrase both referred to printing jargon for being or becoming jumbled, confused, or chaotic.

Not only were some Democrats becoming favorable toward abolition, but public sentiment in the Border States was also moving in that direction.  In January 1864, Senator Henderson of Missouri had proposed his federal abolition amendment; in February, the Maryland electorate voted to hold a state convention for drafting an antislavery constitution; and in March, voters in the new state of West Virginia approved a constitution granting gradual emancipation there.   

Nevertheless, a few Republicans and a majority of Democrats in the U.S. House remained unconvinced of the worth of an abolition amendment.  On February 15, 1864, the first House vote on the proposed Thirteenth Amendment fell far short of the necessary two-thirds majority, 78-62.  Only 1 Democrat voted for it and 52 were opposed, while only 2 Republicans voted against it and 66 were in favor.  Congressmen independent of the two major parties fell into two groups—Union and Unconditional Union.  The Unconditional Union men voted 10-1 in favor of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, while the Union men were 7-1 against. 

On March 28, a substitute abolition amendment sponsored by Congress Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a dedicated abolitionist and leading radical Republican, also fell short of a two-thirds majority.  Its language reflected that of the Thirteenth Amendment, but added a section explicitly nullifying the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution.  An attempt to remove the fugitive slave clause portion and revote on the abolitionist amendment was interrupted by news of the death of a fellow congressman.  An editorial in the April 9, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly praised a loyal Democratic state legislator in New York for endorsing a federal abolition amendment, but criticized five Democratic congressmen from New York who voted against Stevens’s version.  Editor George William Curtis wondered “Under Which” policy—freedom or slavery—the Democratic Party would rally.

On April 8, 1864, the proposed Thirteenth Amendment passed the Senate, 38-6, which was eight votes more than the needed two-thirds majority.  All 30 Republicans voted in favor; Democrats were divided with four in favor and five opposed (three were absent); three of the five senators elected on a Union ticket voted for the measure, one against, and two were absent; and, the one Unconditional Union senator voted in the affirmative.  By ignoring the questions of enforcement measures, the role of former Confederate states in the ratification process, and the more thorny issue of equal rights under the law, which Senator Sumner’s proposal had raised, the Thirteenth Amendment was able to attract support from conservative Republicans and War Democrats.

In the April 23, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published April 13), editor George William Curtis focused his commentary on the speeches given by four of the opposing senators.  That two were from Kentucky and one from Delaware revealed continuing resistance to emancipation in those Border States, primarily among Peace Democrats, despite greater acceptance of it in Missouri, Maryland, and West Virginia.  Curtis concluded that the ultimate adoption of the amendment would make worthwhile the sacrifice, destruction, and the death caused by the Civil War.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  To the “Crittenden Compromise” section of the commentary

2)  January 2, 1864, p. 3, c. 1-2
“Domestic Intelligence” column

3)  January 23, 1864, p. 51, c. 2
“Domestic Intelligence” column

4)  February 27, 1864, p. 130, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

5)  February 27, 1864, p. 130, c. 3-4
editorial, “The Democratic Party”

6)  March 12, 1864, p. 162, c. 4
editorial, “Type in Pi”

7)  April 23, 1864, p. 259, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column, “The Spring Elections”

8)  February 27, 1864, p. 131, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

9)  April 9, 1864, p. 227, c. 2-3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

10)  April 9, 1864, pp. 226(c.4)-227(c.1)
editorial, “Under Which?”

11)  April 23, 1864, p. 258, c. 4
editorial, “The Amendment to the Constitution”

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Congressional Proposals and Senate Passage // The Election of 1864
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