The previous spring, the House of Representatives had held fast to party lines. Democrats voted “Nay” and Republicans “Aye” when the amendment passed in the Senate.
With newly elected Republican House members, President Lincoln feels confident. A new debate in March could lay the groundwork for slavery to be abolished.
But it is risky to wait. If peace negotiations come to pass by spring, a South, defeated, needing the strong hands of slaves to rebuild, will not accept a Constitutional amendment setting its work force free.
Lincoln needs the “Ayes” from Union supporters and Border State representatives.
If they back the amendment, the Civil War could end more quickly.
The president also needs less than a handful of votes to pass the amendment, so he reaches into his pocket of favors, promising a Brooklyn Democrat the post of navy agent in New York once he agrees to support the amendment. He does.
Democrats are reminded hourly a vote to abolish slavery will compromise the power of states’ rights for decades. They are feeling pressure to oppose the amendment.
And on the morning of the vote, rumors run rampant. One whispered question is whether or not the Confederate Peace Commissioners are in Washington.
Lincoln knows the Democratic leadership fears peace talk representatives will walk away from the table if the South’s slaves are pawns in the negotiations.
So, when asked, the president chooses the greater good over strict truth. He knows the commissioners are bound for Washington, but not yet in the city.
“As far as I know,” he says, quelling the rumor, “there are no peace commissioners in the city or likely to be in it.”
In her book, “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin sets the stage in the House of Representatives on the day of the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment.
“Every foot of space, in the galleries and on the floor of the House was taken,” she writes, “with dozens of spectators in the building, eager to hear the vote tally.”
Senators had come to the House to listen to the debate and also members of most foreign ministries.
One Democratic Congressman, speaking to his change of heart in supporting the amendment, raises his voice to be heard. “The only way to achieve peace,” he vows, “is to abolish slavery, the cornerstone of the Confederacy.”
The final tally, taken on printed sheets of paper, is 119 votes in favor of a joint resolution to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery. Fifty-nine members vote against the amendment.
After a moment of stunned silence, the galleries erupt in a “storm of cheers” and before the year ends, three-fourths of the states will vote to uphold the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
And though Jefferson Davis insists he can have “no common country with the Yankees” and the war continues, there comes a day when battle weary Gen. Robert E. Lee’s voice breaks as he tells his men: “I have done the best I could for you.”
Even then, we do not become the nation of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address overnight, “one with malice toward none; with charity for all.” Binding up the country’s wounds takes more years than Lincoln is granted.
“The better angels of our nature,” from whom Lincoln drew inspiration, do not wage battles of fairness at every turn, but the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment begins the long and ongoing journey toward equality in this country.
In rejecting the plantation mentality of one man’s fate as master, another’s as servant, we begin to mirror a nation of free men and women.
Abraham Lincoln taught a war-torn America a forgotten history lesson. From the beginning, the Declaration of Independence committed this raw, new country to a legacy of human rights. “All men are created equal,” it reads, lest we forget.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.