The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime) was adopted on December 18, 1865 when Georgia’s ratification brought the total of number of states so ratifying to 27 of the then 36 states, satisfying the three-quarter requirement of the Constitution. Eventually, all 36 states would ratify the Amendment, with Mississippi eventually ratifying on March 16, 1995, having earlier rejected the Amendment on December 5, 1865.
In order for the Amendment proposal to be submitted to the states for ratification, the proposal first had to secure either a two-third majority both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives or a two-third majority of all the states. The Constitution provides no formal role for the President in the amendment process, whether the proposal process proceeds first through the Congress or through the states.
With the Union in disarray during the Civil War, there could be no reliance on an initiative through the states. President Lincoln, in a cynical political maneuver designed to gain the moral high ground for the War of Northern Aggression, had exercised presidential war powers to make the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that declared the freedom of slaves in ten Confederate states then in rebellion. The Proclamation did not free slaves in states that remained within the Union; nor did it make slavery itself illegal.
In any event, once the war ended, the Proclamation would have no standing in law. A presidential proclamation could have no impact on the Constitution of the United States. If the slaves were to be freed, it was crucial to move an amendment through Congress prior to the end of the war, when it would surely be blocked by politicians representing the defeated southern states.
The amendment process would be difficult, even with the southern states out of the picture. For the northern border states had their own slave-owning interests embedded in the Congress. Moreover, prior to the Thirteenth Amendment, no new amendment had been adopted in more than 60 years.
The process began in the Senate on January 11, 1864, when a War Democrat, Senator John B. Henderson first submitted an amendment proposal to abolish slavery. An adjusted amendment proposal passed the Senate on April 8, 1864, by a vote of 38 to 6. The House of Representatives, however, declined to pass the proposal at that time.
The proposal was resuscitated by the Republican Representative James M. Ashley of Ohio, the House floor manager, who persuaded a number of House Democrats to support it. The two-third majority, however, still looked to be well out of reach.
At this point two Republican politicians joined forces in a seriously disreputable process of bribery, corruption, and lies, in order to achieve the two-third House vote in favor of the Amendment. They proved to be equally important in achieving their joint objective.
President Abraham Lincoln, although formally excluded from the Amendment process, proved to be the arch-angel of bribery and corruption, paying off reluctant politicians both with offers of patronage and, more crudely, with envelopes stuffed with cash, in order to persuade them to sell their own constituents down the Potomac River. Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist who was secretly bedding a black woman, violated his own strong moral belief in the social equality between blacks and whites, speaking out forcefully against any such presumed equality on the floor of the House in order to persuade wavering colleagues to vote for the Amendment.
So working together, through heavy arm-twisting, bribery, corruption and a tissue of lies, Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens carried the day. On January 31, 1865, by a vote of 119 to 56, the House squeaked its way to a two-third majority.
And that, folks, is politics. Never expect clean pairs of hands from those who practice that dirty business. Even this most moral of outcomes was achieved immorally by two cynical practitioners (and many willing accomplices) of the black arts.
Hat Tip: Steven Spielberg’s superb Lincoln (in a movie theater near to you)