The Amazing Man who Stopped the Can

Based on a friend’s high praise (from about 5 years ago), I finally knuckled down and immersed myself in the book, Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Within its 750 pages I discovered the amazing man who was our 16th president and the other three men who ran against him for the Republican nomination for president in 1860, only to find themselves as members of his cabinet and among the men who loved him most.  To say that I got teary-eyed at the assassination part should reveal to you how much my fondness and respect for this man grew.  Perhaps it’s a true testament to the author’s ability as a writer, but I suspect that it was more about the person she revealed in those pages, a man whose breadth and depth of character and intelligence is only hinted at in the history books that most of us have ever read.

It was merely coincidental that I happened to be reading Goodwin’s book during last month which marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.   Consequently, I was well armed to weigh the comments of the several talking heads, opinion writers, and politicians who discussed the origins of this war as if it were still in contention.  You could hear the same post-hoc rationalizations that were heard after the Civil War from Southern apologists :  states’ rights, cultural differences, tariffs, or the industrializing North versus the agrarian South.  These, claim historian Orville Vernon Burton, would have you believe “that it was actually the collision of two noble civilizations from which black slaves had been airbrushed out.” Of course, it suits the Tea Party’s agenda to characterize it as a struggle over states’ rights.  They leave out the simple fact that the Southern states sought to protect states’ rights to permit human bondage.

Reading Team of Rivals, however, one cannot doubt this war’s origins.  As Goodwin depicted the politics of the time and the national disputes that alienated the country, the evidence is overwhelming that slavery was the root cause of this horrific war. Simply consider the Missouri Compromise (1820); the Fugitive Slave Law (1850s); the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854); and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (protecting private property rights), to name a few.  In fact, the crisis had been brewing since the founding of this country.  As pointed out in the Ken Burn’s latest civil war documentary, a federal union consisting of the original 13 colonies would not have been possible if our founding fathers had not kicked the can (of slavery) down the road for future generations to deal with.

Of all the events depicted in the book, however, it was not the ground battles but the legislative battle — described in pages 686-690 and liberally quoted here — to pass the Thirteenth Amendment that most dramatized slavery as the motivating force behind that war —  at least, for this political junkie.

As author Goodwin explains, “. . . nothing on the home front in January 1865 engaged Lincoln with greater urgency than the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery.  He had long feared that his [1863] Emancipation Proclamation would be discarded once the war came to an end.  ‘A question might be raised whether the proclamation was legally valid,’ he said.  ‘It might be added that it only aided those who came into our lines . . . or that it would have no effect upon the children of the slaves born hereafter.’”

The amendment had passed in the Senate by the requisite two-thirds the previous spring, but failed to garner the two-third vote in the House, where Congress split along party lines (sound familiar?) with Republicans in favor and Democrats against.

Republican gains in the November elections ensured that the amendment would pass if he called a special session after March 4.  Questions about the Proclamation’s validity would be assured, however, if this Congress would complete the job.

Ohio Congressman James Ashley reintroduced the measure in the House on January 6, 1865.  To sway votes of moderate Democrats and border-state Unionists, Lincoln assigned two allies to deliver the votes of wavering members, leaving them no doubt that in exchange for the needed votes he had the power to offer plum assignments, pardons, campaign contributions, and/or government jobs.    Democrat Moses Odell, for example, changed his vote and received the lucrative position of Navy agent in New York when the session ended.

As the vote got nearer, the pressure intensified; Democrats were threatened with dire consequences if they failed to maintain the party line.

Rumors that Confederate Peace Commissioners were en route to Washington or had already arrived were being circulated.  Ashley feared the Democratic leadership might try to keep their members in line by arguing that the amendment’s passage would short-circuit peace talks.  He asked the President to confirm or deny the rumors and Lincoln promptly replied that there were no peace commissioners in the city, or likely to be. This was a cunning evasion, Ashley later learned, because the Commissioners were known by Lincoln to be on their way to Fort Monroe.

James Ashley

Describing the scene at the Capitol, Ashley wrote, “Every available foot of space, both in the galleries and on the floor of the House, was crowded at an early hour, and many hundred could not get within hearing.”  The  members of the Supreme Court were present, along with cabinet members Seward, Fessenden, and Dennison.  Dozens of senators and members of most foreign ministries had come to witness the historic debate.

Ashley yielded his time at the podium to the small band of Democrats who would support the amendment but needed to justify their vote shifts.   One Congressman explained that he had changed his mind when he saw that the only way to achieve peace was to destroy “the cornerstone of the Southern confederacy.”  Applause erupted from the galleries.

After every Democrat who wanted to speak had been heard, the voting began.  At first, it appeared that the amendment had fallen two or three votes short of the requisite two-thirds margin.  The floor was in a tumult when Speaker Colfax stood to announce the final tally.  His voice shaking, he said, “On the passage of the Joint Resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States the ayes have 119, the noes 56.  The constitutional majority of two-thirds having voted in the affirmative, the Joint Resolution has passed.”  Without five Democrats who had changed their votes, the amendment would have lost.

“For a moment there was a pause of utter silence,” Noah Brooks reported, “as if the voices of the dense mass of spectators were choked with strong emotion.  Then there was an explosion, a storm of cheers, the like of which probably no Congress of the United States ever heard before.”

Edwin Stanton

“Before the members left their seats,” Congressman Arnold recalled, “the roar of artillery from Capitol Hill announced to the people of Washington that the amendment had passed.”  Ashley brought to the War Department a list of all those who had voted in favor.  War Secretary Edwin Stanton ordered three additional batteries to “fire one hundred guns with their heaviest charges” while he slowly read each name aloud, proclaiming, “History will embalm them in great honor.”

And that, we can safely say, is when that can, kicked down the road by our founding fathers, came to a stop.

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About nowandthenadays

Observer of life who writes about Austin, women's issues, history, and politics. I retired as a Texas Assistant Attorney General after almost 40 years in state government in May, 2013.
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