Who Freed The Slaves?: The Fight Over The Thirteenth Amendment, by Leonard L. Richards
This is a book written by an “abolitionist” historian who is quite critical of Abraham Lincoln, and has no general appreciation of pragmatic politics or prudential morality, one of those unsparing judges of others who is perhaps not aware of our contempary moral failings regarding the full adherence to the founding principles of our country on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a code word for property rights in its 18th century context). Given the author’s almost continual criticism of Abraham Lincoln, it is striking and noteworthy that against his will and against every inclination he ends up giving a great deal of credit to Lincoln, whether directly or by proxy, in ensuring the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, quite against his interests in promoting James Ashley, a radical Republican from the Toledo, Ohio district, as the real hero of the passage of the thirteenth amendment. The author’s attempts to burnish the reputation of Ashley are in one way successful in reminding us that success has a hundred fathers—any successful undertaking requires a lot of work by different people, some of whom may not particularly like or respect each other on a personal level but who are committed to shared goals and in that shared commitment find common cause with others. James Ashley, a man who seems difficult to like, and certainly not a gentleman of magnanimous character or graciousness in dealing with others who he considered less righteous than himself, was certainly zealous in managing the floor in the House of Representatives to secure the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by the lame duck session of Congress in early 1865. Insofar as this book helps us remember him, it is a successful book, at least in part.
The writing of this book is in some ways a biography and in other ways a bit of a historical mystery. James Ashley served in Congress for a few terms and managed to acquire a certain amount of power and reputation in a Congress that was often a revolving door for one reason or another and thus had very little continuity from one session to the next. It included chapters on the initial failure of the amendment to pass the House in 1864, the election that followed where Lincoln’s coattails decimated the Northern Democratic party, as well as the unlikely strategy of Representative Ashley in targeting lame ducks who had voted against or abstained in the vote on the amendment the first time as suitable targets for pressure to get them to reverse their vote, an effort that was ultimately successful. The author then discusses various matters of Ashley’s later career, including his immoderate hostility towards President Andrew Johnson that ended up harming his own career and reputation, and his later business career and even an unsuccessful stint as a territorial governor of Montana, an account previously written about largely by black historians wishing to give him praise, a sensible move as praise was due for his actions in pushing through legal and constitutional freedom for blacks from the oppression of plantation slavery.
Yet even as the author wishes to give credit to Ashley and to his band of mostly radical Republican political allies who thought Lincoln craven and far too moderate, the author seems forced to admit that it was Lincoln’s skill at patronage and charm that appears to have been decisive in providing for the margin of victory for the amendment. The very corruption and pressure that was necessary to end slavery in the United States after a successful war of reunion against a treasonous and sectionally based regime founded on the cornerstone of racism signifies that the goals of many abolitionists like Ashley in seeking greater equal rights for blacks, however just a cause (and I believe it was just) was far beyond the moral character of 19th century America. In a consensual republic like the United States, laws must represent the will of the public, with due protection for both majority rule and minority rights, in order to be legitimate. Laws that are too far in advance of the moral sympathies of a given generation will become, at best, dead letters, as was the case for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the constitution. Contrary to those who wish to seize government power in order to remake a society, a tendency that no ideology is immune to, efforts to legislate morality fail if there is a lack of character and a heart within a given generation to obey laws that they disagree with. Ashley himself, a flagrant and open violator of the Fugitive Slave Law, is evidence of the fact that writing laws alone cannot make people obey them, and our generation has seen itself that the attempts by temporary majorities and corrupt judges to enact laws has threatened the legitimacy of our own republic. This book, almost unintentionally, is a warning about the limits of the efficacy of changing laws when one has not taken the slow and difficult effort to win hearts and minds, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that some hearts and minds refuse to be won over by us by any means whatsoever.