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James Mitchell Ashley
(November 14, 1824ĖSeptember 16, 1896)

James Ashley was a Republican congressman from Ohio.  In December 1863, he introduced the first bill for a constitutional amendment to ban slavery in the entire United States.  It helped form the foundation for what became the Thirteenth Amendment (ratified in December 1865).

James Ashley was born on November 14, 1824, near Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to Mary Ann Kirkpatrick Ashley and John Clinton Ashley. He was raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, but often traveled with his father, an itinerant Cambellite preacher, throughout Ohio, Kentucky, and western Virginia. Such a life left no time for formal education, but it did introduce him to the institution of slavery, which he learned to hate. When he was 14, Ashley left home to work as a steamship cabin boy in Cincinnati.

By 1842, he had begun working for various newspapers, particularly the Scioto Valley Republican. He became editor and part owner of the Portsmouth [Ohio] Democrat in 1848.  Meanwhile, he had been studying law, and in 1849 was admitted to the Ohio bar. Two years later, he married Emma Smith; they later had four children.  Ashley was a longtime abolitionist and participated in the Underground Railroad by helping slaves flee from neighboring Kentucky into Ohio. When his role was discovered, he was compelled to move out of Portsmouth. He settled in Toledo, where he operated a general store.  He sold his portion of the business in 1858 in order to focus on politics.

Ashley had started his political life as a Democrat with an independent streak. He broke with the main forces in his party to support a faction of temperance Democrats in 1853 and to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. He reacted like many other Northerners during the collapse of the existing party system in the mid-1850s by swiftly migrating from the Anti-Nebraska movement to the American (Know Nothing) Party to the new Republican Party.  In 1858, he narrowly won election to the first of five consecutive terms in Congress (1859-1869). His support of school desegregation and voting rights for women and blacks distinguished him from most politicians of the period.

In 1860, Ashley campaigned for Republican presidential nominee Abraham Lincoln and was reelection to a second congressional term.  During the secession crisis in the winter of 1860-1861, Ashley opposed compromising with the slaveholding South and, after the Civil War began in April 1861, he urged the confiscation of Confederate property and the emancipation of the slaves.  He was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the law abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia (April 1862).  As chairman of the House Committee on Territories, Ashley formulated a radical plan for Reconstruction in December 1861.  It would have abolished slavery, established territorial governments in the seceded states, redistributed confiscated land to former slaves and Southern white Unionists, and granted black men the right to vote.  When President Lincoln presented his much milder Reconstruction plan in December 1863, Ashley unsuccessfully attempted to add a provision for black voting rights. Also in his second term, the congressman was accused of illegal land speculation and misuse of his office to secure jobs for relatives. A special congressional committee acquitted him in 1863.

In December 1863, Ashley introduced a bill proposing a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in the entire United States.  He then steered the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives until its passage in January 1865.  The constitutionally required three-quarters of the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment and it became part of the U.S. Constitution in December 1865, eight months after the end of the Civil War.

Ashley was a critic of President Andrew Johnsonís Reconstruction policies, and introduced articles of impeachment against the president in January 1867. Ashley allowed his political disagreement to become personal and, in a moment of rhetorical passion, hinted that Johnson was responsible for President Lincolnís assassination.  Ashley lost a reelection bid in 1868, but was appointed the next year by President Ulysses S. Grant to be governor of the Montana Territory.  Perhaps because of private criticisms of the president, Grant did not reappoint him.  In 1871, Ashley joined the Liberal Republican opponents of Grant, and in 1872 supported maverick New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley for president.

In 1877, Ashley purchased the Toledo and Ann Arbor Railroad (which he expanded into the Toledo, Ann Arbor and Northern Michigan Railroad), but was forced to sell it during the financial panic of 1893.  He was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 1890 and 1892.  James Ashley died on September 16, 1896, while on a trip to Michigan.

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