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Abraham Lincoln and the two 13th Amendments

December 14, 2012 by Malcolm Lazin


“Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner tells the story of Lincoln’s cunning in the passage by the House of Representatives of the 13th Amendment. The film is set shortly after Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 4, 1865, and concludes with the surrender by the Confederacy at Appomattox on April 9, and Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865.


“Lincoln” makes clear that the compromise to pass the 13th Amendment meant that while slavery was abolished, slaves including those who served in the Union Army were not granted citizenship.


According to New York Times commentator David Brooks, Lincoln to achieve his goals, “feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters… The movie shows a character-building trajectory, common among great politicians, which you might call the trajectory from the Gettysburg Address to the Second Inaugural.” And therein lies the film’s failing to demarcate Lincoln’s diametric journey between his two 13th Amendment.


Two days before his first inauguration in March 4, 1961, Lincoln and the Republicans passed a proposed 13th Amendment, which enshrined slavery by prohibiting Congress from abolishing or interfering with state-allowed slavery. (Today it is known as the Corwin Amendment.}


Thomas Corwin, an Ohio Republican Congressman and Lincoln supported, drafted the amendment. In his First Inaugural, Lincoln referenced the 13th Amendment’s support for slavery by stating, “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”


Lincoln’s election on November 6, 1860, was the first presidential campaign that had sectional parties and where the president and vice president were not from the North and the other from the South.  Lincoln’s running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, was from Maine.  Lincoln received 39.8 percent of the popular vote, almost all of which came from the North and he garnered no electoral votes from border or southern states.


Neither Lincoln nor the Republican platform called for the abolition of slavery, but rather accepted slavery where it then existed. They proposed eliminating slavery in the territories irrespective of whether sanctioned by the state legislature or by popular vote.  For most, that opposition was based on the belief that it was unfair for white laborers to compete with slaves and businessmen to compete with slaveholders.


Lincoln’s election alarmed the South and it was exacerbated when he didn’t have anyone on his transition team from the South and held no meetings with Southern leadership.  Lincoln’s federal experience was 10 years earlier, and he had made no longstanding Southern friends during his one term in Congress.  In December 1860, South Carolina seceded.


Thereafter and having receiving no assurances from Lincoln, by February 1861, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas seceded and with South Carolina formed the Confederate States of America. President James Buchanan and others undertook efforts including a proposed constitutional convention and national plebiscite, the Crittenden Compromise and a Peace Convention to keep the Union together.  Lincoln and the Republicans failed to support those initiatives.


Lincoln remained in Springfield, Illinois prior to his travel to and arrival in the capitol on February 23, nine days prior to the March 4th inauguration. Lincoln had little military and no combat experience.


During the presidential campaign and transition, Lincoln didn’t receive a formal military briefing.  When he arrived for the inauguration, there were 15,000 men in the Army with 14,000 west of the Mississippi River engaged in border disputes and Indian skirmishes.  President Buchanan deployed the remaining 1,000 troops to Washington to help ensure a peaceful inaugural and to protect Lincoln.


Lincoln recognized that the situation was worse than he had thought.  He was faced with three alternatives:  undertake to peacefully bring the Confederate states back into the Union; recognize the Confederate States of America as a separate nation; or oppose their secession at the end of a barrel.


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The Commanding General of the Army was Lt. General Winfred Scott, the hero of the Mexican-American War.  General Scott believed that to win a war with the then-seven Confederate states that it would take 300,000 men, two to three years of hard fighting and $250 million, when the annual national budget was of similar size.


In response to the alternatives, Lincoln and the Republicans threw their support for a 13th Amendment, which would constitutionally enshrine slavery in states allowing that servitude.  On March 2, the proposed 13th Amendment was passed as a joint resolution.  Each chamber provided the required two-thirds majority with the Senate under the leadership of Republican New York Senator and Lincoln adviser William Seward passing the amendment by 24 to 12, and the House by 133 to 65.


Ohio and Maryland’s legislatures ratified the amendment and Illinois’ state constitutional convention did the same. Had the Civil War not intervened, the proposed 13th Amendment would likely have been ratified by the required three-quarters of the states.


Four years later Lincoln, who had been reluctant to sign an Emancipation Proclamation and who had rescinded a Union general’s order freeing slaves seized from a slaveholder’s plantation, championed a 13th Amendment that eradicated slavery.


With the winning of the war and his assassination, Lincoln took on heroic mythology. It became unpopular to examine what appeared to counter the Great Emancipator.  Why the 1865 13th Amendment and 100 years later, Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts did not bring African -American equality is elucidated by revealing the trajectory of Lincoln.


Malcolm Lazin is the Founder and Executive Director of the Equality Forum.


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