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

After approval by the U.S. House of Representatives, the proposed Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States was sent to the states for ratification.  The U.S. Constitution requires that three-quarters of the states officially endorse a proposed amendment before it becomes part of the Constitution.  In 1865, most congressmen had assumed, with little public discussion, that former Confederate states would take part in the ratification process.  With the war ending on April 9, 1865, that meant that all 11 former Confederate states would be included, so that the proposed abolition amendment needed approval by 27 of the entire 36 states in the Union. 

Immediately after the U.S. House passed the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865, Senator Lyman Trumbull telegraphed Governor Richard J. Oglesby of Illinois urging him to ensure that President Lincoln’s home state was the first to ratify the historic proposal.  The next day at noon, Governor Oglesby forwarded the news to the state legislature, along with his directive that the Thirteenth Amendment “is just, it is humane” and should be approved “now.”  By 4:30 that afternoon, February 1, large majorities in both state chambers had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment.  By early March, it had been approved by 19 states, most of which were in the Midwest, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic, along with the Border States of Maryland, West Virginia, and Missouri, and two Western states, Kansas and Nevada.  In the same period, it was rejected by three states, Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey. 

With former Confederate states part of the ratification process, Virginia and Louisiana approved the Thirteenth Amendment in February followed by Tennessee and Arkansas in April.  The governments of Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas were those established under President Lincoln’s Reconstruction policy.  In Virginia, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified by a “rump” legislature, which had begun meeting in Alexandria shortly after the Civil War began, claiming to be the legitimate and loyal representative of the state in the Union.  It had earlier approved the creation of the state’s western counties into the new state of West Virginia.  The U.S. State Department accepted the ratification from those four and, later, other Southern states.   

In the months following the end of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination in mid-April 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified by Connecticut on May 4 and New Hampshire on July 1.  The focus then shifted southward as momentum for ratification slowed.  Upon the death of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat from Tennessee, was sworn in as president.  While Congress was in recess during the summer of 1865, President Johnson began implementing his own Reconstruction program.

Under his guidelines, the new state constitutions abolished slavery, repealed their secession ordinances, and repudiated Confederate war debts.  The president also urged, but did not require, the former Confederate states to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment as a condition for regaining representation in Congress.   

In the July 8 issue of Harper’s Weekly, editor George William Curtis supported Johnson’s authority to impose conditions on the unreconstructed states in order to secure the public safety.  Curtis argued that the abolition of slavery, which was at the root of the Civil War, was of paramount importance to establishing law and order in the postwar era.

In early 1864, New York Times editor Henry Raymond had called the proposed abolition amendment an unnecessary distraction from the war effort.  In the editorial of the July 8, 1865 Harper’s Weekly, Curtis criticized The New York Times (“Daily Times”) for opposing the right of the federal government to impose conditions, including abolition, on the South.  (In the editorial, Dana also refers to Charles Dana, who was editor of the Chicago Republican; the New York World was a Democratic newspaper.) 

The political debates in the former Confederate states expressed disgruntlement over abolishing slavery and were filled with overtly racist language concerning the rights of the freed slaves.  In the October 10 issue of Harper’s Weekly, Curtis was gratified that South Carolina’s provisional governor, Benjamin Franklin Perry, admitted that slavery was dead, but the editor expressed dismay over the governor’s comment that “this is a white man’s government, and intended for white men only.”  Curtis, a longtime advocate of abolition and civil rights for black Americans, pleaded “only for equal justice for all men, since it is demonstrated that the Union can stand on no other foundation.”  The next week, he criticized the Alabama constitutional convention for only reluctantly abolishing slavery in the proposed state constitution, not endorsing the Thirteenth Amendment, and for limiting the political class to white men only.  (The Alabama state legislature later ratified the Thirteenth Amendment on December 2, 1865.) 

The concern that the Southern states undergoing Reconstruction were electing the very men who had led the Confederacy was expressed in a Harper’s Weekly cartoon.  In it, President Johnson warns a Virginia ex-Rebel that the federal government will ensure that blacks will be treated fairly.  The sullen Virginian has his foot on a “Parole of Honor” and the “Constitutional Amendment,” while a white man whips a black man in the background.  (At that point, Harper’s Weekly was supporting the Johnson administration, but would later call for his impeachment.) 

A post-election cartoon in November 1865 focused its disdain on Democrats in the northern state of New Jersey, which had defeated ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment earlier in the year.  The cartoon addressed the fear spread by opponents of the Thirteenth Amendment (as previously against the Emancipation Proclamation) that it would lead to black migration northward and racial intermarriage (miscegenation).  (Some states imposed poll taxes on certain classes of voters before they could cast their ballots.  While the cartoon reveals that it was single men in New Jersey, the poll tax was later used widely in the South to discriminate against black voters until it was made unconstitutional by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964.)  Since the Union ticket—Republicans and some War Democrats—had been victorious in the fall 1864 election in New Jersey, the new state legislature ratified the Thirteenth Amendment on January 23, 1866, after the measure had become part of the U.S. Constitution. 

The November 4, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly listed the dates when each state had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment.  (It incorrectly included Iowa, which did not ratify until January 15, 1866, and New Hampshire’s ratification is often listed as July 1, 1865, rather than June 30.)  In the late autumn of 1865, four of the former Confederate states approved the Thirteenth Amendment—South Carolina on November 13, Alabama on December 2, North Carolina on December 4, and Georgia on December 6—to give it the constitutionally required approval by three-quarters of the states (27 of 36).  On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Henry Seward declared it officially ratified and part of the United States Constitution.  (That same day, former Congressman Thomas Corwin, author of the original, unratified and pro-slavery, Thirteenth Amendment died in Washington, D.C.)  Of the former Confederate states, all but Florida, Texas, and Mississippi had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment before it officially became part of the U.S. Constitution on December 18, 1865.  Florida ratified it on December 28, 1865; Texas on February 18, 1870; and Mississippi never ratified it.

Many politicians in the South, their Northern allies, and members of the Johnson administration expected that ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment would largely end federal intervention in the states of the former Confederacy.  However, there had been voices, such as that of Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis, raised in protest over the refusal of states undergoing Johnson’s Reconstruction program to grant basic civil rights to the newly freed slaves.   

Blacks Americans themselves had already been agitating for federal legislation to grant them citizenship and voting rights, which was denied them in Southern states and in many Northern states, as well.  In mid-February 1865, only two weeks after the U.S. House passed the Thirteenth Amendment, the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet became the first black person to address the United States Congress.  He praised the abolition amendment, but also took the opportunity to call for its completion through adoption of equal rights measures.  He later became the U.S. minister to the African nation of Liberia.  (Harper’s Weekly added an extra “s” to his last name.) 

When Congress reconvened in December 1865, it refused to seat the elected representatives and senators from the South, and soon began an extended struggle with President Andrew Johnson over the content and control of Reconstruction.  Part of that political battle would include fights over the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which protected voting rights from being denied on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Harper's Weekly References

1)  July 8, 1865, p. 418, c. 2-3
editorial, “The Public Safety”

2)  October 7, 1865, p. 626, c. 2
editorial, “South Carolina Convention”

3)  October 14, 1865, p. 642, c. 2-3
editorial, “Alabama”

4)  August 19, 1865, p. 528
cartoon, “The Virginia Elections”

5)  November 25, 1865, p. 752
cartoon, “The Election in New Jersey”

6)  November 4, 1865, p. 691, c. 4
Domestic Intelligence, “The Constitutional Amendment”

7)  December 30, 1865, p. 818, c. 1
proclamation, “The Doom of Slavery”

8)  August 6, 1881, p. 541, c. 3
portrait, “The Rev. Dr. Garnett”

9)  August 6, 1881, p. 542, c. 1
news story, “Our Minister to Liberia”

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




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