Matthew Pinsker: Why Did Lincoln Rush the 13th Amendment?

With the recent release of the blockbuster, critically-acclaimed Lincoln, The Recovering Politician has asked Lincoln scholar, Matthew Pinsker — a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania — to share some historical insights about our 16th President.  Click here and here for his prior 2 pieces.

Here is the latest of his columns:

This question is easy to answer as far as the movie is concerned, but much more complicated to explain in real life.  The movie needs a plot device that raises dramatic tension, and so the audience is encouraged to believe through a series of scenes that passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by the House before the war’s end is absolutely essential –both to ending the conflict and for securing the final destruction of slavery.  The implication builds in scene after scene that it was truly now or never for abolition by the end of January 1865.

But in reality, there is no indication that President Lincoln actually considered quick passage of the abolition amendment to be so crucial.  His message to Congress in December 1864 strikes a much different tone.  He wrote that “the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not” and so suggested that since there was “only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States” why “may we not agree that the sooner the better?”  The confidence of that taunt (“the sooner the better”) was no accident.  The National Union (Republican) Party had won a sweeping victory in the 1864 elections on a platform that explicitly called for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.  The next Congress (39th) was going to have an anti-slavery super-majority in both houses.  Lincoln considered the 1864 elections to have offered an overwhelming mandate.  Many northern Democrats were demoralized and there was open talk in places like Tammany Hall (the New York City Democratic Party) about the need to distance themselves from slavery.  And by every reckoning, the Confederacy was on the verge of total military and political collapse.

Professor Matthew Pinsker

Professor Matthew Pinsker

This is not to argue that Lincoln was somehow reluctant about securing the amendment or not anxious at all about ending the war.  But if Congress didn’t act on slavery at the beginning of January, it was going to do so either by special session in March or during the next regular session in December.  Of course, it’s always possible that Lincoln feared any delays might jeopardize the balky Unionist/Republican coalition (represented in the film by the differences between Thaddeus Stevens / Tommy Lee Jones and his radical faction and old Francis P. Blair, Sr. / Hal Holbrook and his clique of conservatives).

Yet, practically every sign of the times suggested otherwise.  For example, the movie makes much out of Lincoln’s fears regarding the Supreme Court and what they might do to his Emancipation Proclamation, but that was a concern much more relevant circa 1862 than early 1865 when leading abolitionist Salmon P. Chase was being confirmed as the new Chief Justice of the United States (replacing arch Lincoln enemy Roger Brooke Taney).  I don’t think Chase’s name was even mentioned in the movie.  Also left unmentioned was the fact that the Unionists / Republicans had actually packed the Supreme Court after 1863 –adding a tenth justice that helped their majority.  Anti-slavery forces controlled the Supreme Court by the war’s end.
The movie also leaves unstated the progress of state abolition efforts by January 1865.  One reason why Democratic congressman from Maryland and Missouri were so willing to consider switching their votes on the abolition amendment is because by that point both of their states had begun abolishing slavery.   There were admittedly still some Border State holdouts on the abolition question (damn Delaware), but even the Confederacy at the beginning of 1865 was contemplating emancipation as an inducement for enlisting black soldiers.  That’s how far along the process of slavery’s destruction had come by the time the movie’s opening scene commences.  And this is why a leading historian such as Eric Foner (Columbia University) has written in the New York Times that the movie “grossly exaggerates” its claims about the urgency of the issue (November 26, 2012).

Still, there is no doubt that Lincoln wanted an amendment as a “king’s cure,” but exactly why he wanted that amendment in that particular form remains an open question debated by scholars. The best academic insights on this subject come from David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln(1995), Michael Vorenberg’s Final Freedom(2001), and James Oakes’s Freedom National (2012).   It turns out that Lincoln had actually come late to the realization about a need for the anti-slavery Thirteenth Amendment (not until June 1864).   It was also possible that he embraced that amendment at least partly as a weapon in his battle with Congress over control of Reconstruction policy.  There were 36 states in 1865 (counting 11 states from the Confederacy), which meant that 27 states had to ratify the amendment for it to become part of the Constitution.  That was impossible without at least some of the former Confederate states joining in this ratification.  This topic received hardly any attention during the January debates over the amendment (namely, whether ratification would require 27 states or some lesser number based on who was “in” and who was “out” of the union at the time) but it became critical later and President Lincoln made it clear before his death (in his last public speech, actually, on April 11, 1865) that he considered it a terrible mistake to adopt any constitutional amendment without full participation of all the states.  In other words, here was a reason for Congress to hurry along the process of reconstructing them into the union on the easier terms that the president had proposed rather than the higher thresholds supported by the radical leadership on Capitol Hill.  And that was the real battle brewing in January 1865.

Congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865 was nonetheless a stirring, profound moment in American history, but it was not the stark turning point that the movie pretends it to be.  I don’t think, by the way, that makes the movie bad at all.  It’s a great film that addresses some powerful truths about Lincoln and the war.  And filmmakers should be allowed to take artistic liberties in order to create dramatic tension.  But audiences need to be aware that historical films are historical fictions.  Real life is fascinating, and the real history of the Thirteenth Amendment is complex and compelling, but nobody should deceive himself into imagining that the full history of three-year constitutional battle can be turned into a two-and-a-half hour film that gets your heart pounding and fills your eyes with tears as this wonderful story does.


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