The 13th Amendment needs little, if any, introduction. Abraham Lincoln, often voted the most popular or inspirational President, has been preserved as the freer of slaves. Most recently immortalised in Stephen Spielberg’s film.
However, popular accounts tend to smooth the nuances of Lincoln’s achievements. They continually ignore his overt racism and the limitations of his legislation.Whilst today it is revered as one of the finest hours of American history, Lincoln, and his abolitionist Amendment, was not so popular in the 1860’s.
Opposition to the 13th Amendment was perhaps its biggest obstacle. Unsurprisingly, the Democrats and Southern States were vehemently opposed. Indeed Lincoln realised he needed to supporthis Emancipation Proclamation promises with law or constitutional change to effect permanent change. Thus he pushed the 13th Amendment through in the 28th Congress and put it at the forefront of his electoral campaign.
Perhaps less known, though, is the significant disapproval from within Lincoln’s party. The Civil War had started with union as its goal but the (slightly impassionate) Emancipation Proclamation changed, for many, the course of the war. Emphasis shifted to abolition. Hugely welcomed by the thousands of African American slaves, especially in the south, now able toenjoy freedom (under the control of unionist states or forces) and legally fight for it. But Northern Republicans were less embracing. There was a sense that this had now become Lincoln’s war.
The Republican’s negative stance on slavery shouldn’t be too exaggerated though. They weren’t throwing in their lot with the historically villainous Southern slave owners. Most were committed to the prohibition of slavery expansion. But few were devoted to Lincoln’s dreams of full-scale abolition.
Whythere were such discrepancies between party leader and members has been hotly debated. Racism in 19th Century society was so entrenched it’s likely that politics would have been unable to escape it. But there was still opposed expansion in order to protect the balance of power between Slave and Free states. Others may have not wanted to push the Southern States too far; especially as they so desperately wanted to reunite. However, the original 13th Amendment (1861), originally intended to prevent abolition, suggested others still saw slaveryas a bargaining toolfor the sake of the Union. Moreover, others even suggest its promise was an excuse to recruit African Americans soldiers for the Unionist army. Such a resource of manpower proved vital in the waning latter years of the war. It has been estimated that over 200, 000 former slaves joined up immediately after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 16 of which got the congressional medal of honour.
No matter the reason; it is certain that opposition from both Democrats and Republicans was a great obstacle in the passing of the13th Amendment. The Bill was approved by the Senate with 38 votes to 6, a landslide. But it was a year later in 1865, only after Lincoln’s re-election did it passed in the Representatives (with 119 to 56). The 1864 election saw theRepublicans claim 50 more seats, securing a majority, and abolition promoted as the RepublicanParty campaign. It was only with these conditions that passing the amendment was made possible.
Evidence of bribes and the abstention of many Southern States are commonly claimed as vital to this victory. It is quite ironic that one of America’s most important pieces of freedom and civil rights legislation was only made possible through corruption and an undemocratic vote.
Looking into the later period shows us just how hard this constitutional alteration was to achieve. Southern states were forced to ratify before they were allowed to re-join the union and be represented in congress. Clearly the idea of racial equality, even though bounded into the constitution now, was not catching on. Reconstruction’s Jim Crow Laws painted a similar picture of the South that was seen before the war. African Americans were no longer slaves but they were, only at best, Second Class Citizens. Sharecropping especially maintained the economic and social inferiority of the free slaves. Ensuring in most instances they were occupied with the same work. Even Lincoln’s Predecessor, Andrew Johnson, was opposed to the 14th Amendment and did little to support Lincoln’s work.
This initially disappointing and bleak legacy of Lincoln’s Amendment is wrapped up in the Bill itself. Such a drastic change to society could not be achieved through constitutional change alone. Systematic and gradual changes to social and racial ideologies were necessary. What is more, such a dramatic shift in society needs decades or longer to take effect. In fact, the imprints of such legislation are still seen in American society today.