The world where House and Senate Chambers are packed with Members attentively listening to their colleagues ended long before films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Advise and Consent” paid it homage.
American politics in the 1850s were dominated by the polarization over slavery, which was reflected in the increasingly menacing tone of the national political “conversation” and the retreat into starker sectionalism of political allegiances. Attempts at political compromise over this national sickness initially appeared promising, but ultimately provided only bandages, not cures. When politics failed, the doctors of the law on the Supreme Court stepped in with a massive dose of controversial and untried constitutional medicine in the Dred Scott decision. When that, too, failed, the only means left to stop the spread of the poison was through the extreme surgery of military conflict that cost the blood of over 600,000 Americans. The South wanted amputation of what it saw as the source of the poison—the North’s crusade of political domination. The North rejected amputation and wanted to save the whole patient through radical surgery to cut out the evil—Southern slavery. Read more
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the vacant U.S. Senate seat from Illinois. His opponent in the election would be Stephen Douglas. Upon his nomination, Lincoln delivered the “House Divided” speech in the war of words of what would culminate in the Lincoln-Douglas debates later that year. Read more
Abraham Lincoln’s speech on the Dred Scott Case reveals the complex nature of his views on slavery and racial equality, complexity that reflected the divided national psyche. Many Americans in the broad middle rejected the Southern defense of slavery and believed that the “peculiar institution” violated basic human rights and the fundamental equality of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness promised to all in the Declaration of Independence. Read more
On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling that would forever tarnish its reputation and that would help ignite the fires that led to the Civil War. That decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), held that African-Americans were not United States citizens and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in territories acquired after the creation of the United States.
The facts leading to the decision are a bit convoluted, but necessary to understand the case. Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia. Read more
The Republican Party Platform of 1856 is the most important political platform in American history. It coalesced diverse factions into a new political movement that would dominate American politics for the next 76 years, winning 14 of the next 19 Presidential elections. It also signaled the end of 36 years of political obfuscation on the issue of slavery in America, ultimately leading to the Civil War. The Republican Party Platform of 1856, more than any other platform in American history, was designed to codify a new political philosophy and to solidify a coalition of highly fractious political forces into a cogent and compelling movement. Read more
In 1820, the U.S. Congress passed the Missouri Compromise in an effort to settle disagreements between pro and anti-slavery factions regarding the admission of new states to the union. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in new states north of the 36°30Ëˆ north parallel, with the exception of Missouri. In 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois proposed, and succeeded in passing, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which unraveled the Missouri Compromise. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854, allowed citizens within the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide by what they called “Popular Sovereignty” (a popular vote) as to whether they would allow slavery. Read more
The Missouri Compromise
William C. Duncan, Director of the Marriage Law Foundation
In our day, it is common, indeed expected, for the United States Supreme Court to strike down laws passed by Congress as unconstitutional. In the first decades of the United States, however, this was an exceedingly rare practice. In fact, in 70 years, the Court struck down only two federal laws as unconstitutional. The second of these was the Missouri Compromise.
The Compromise was legislation that arose out of a controversy about extending slavery into the northern parts of the territory acquired during the Louisiana Purchase. The legislation “admitted Missouri as slave state but otherwise prohibited slavery Read more
The sectional struggle over slavery came to a head in 1820. With eleven free states and eleven slave states, if Missouri entered the Union as a slave state, the balance of power would shift toward the South. After several months of debate, a compromise emerged: Maine would enter the Union as a free state, Missouri as a slave state. Additionally, slavery was prohibited in the territory of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri’s southern border.
March 6, 1820
An Act to authorize the people of the Missouri territory to form a constitution and state government, and for
the admission of such state into the Union Read more
Thomas Jefferson’s April, 1820 Letter to John Holmes came as the nation expanded westward into the Louisiana Purchase, and with the homesteaders and settlers came the question of slavery. In an attempt to address slavery and its role in the new territories, it was agreed by Congress that slavery would be allowed in Missouri but no other state North of the 36°30â€² line; additionally, Maine would enter the Union as a Free State. Read more
Amendment 13 – Slavery Abolished, Ratified December 6, 1865.
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North- West of the River Ohio, known as the Northwest Ordinance or “The Ordinance of 1787,” an act of the Congress of the Confederation of the United States, passed July 13, 1787.
Article 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.
The 13th Amendment is often referred to as the first of the “Reconstruction Amendments.” While it is true that the abolition of slavery was certainly the first priority for the Congress that conducted the War for the Union, it is not exactly correct to pair the 13th Amendment with the 14th and 15th Amendments, which were literally debated in the context of the aftermath of the war and specifically adopted to extend the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship to the ex-slaves. The 13th Amendment, by contrast, was debated and adopted by the Congress while the war yet raged, and specifically as blow against the rebellion as well as an affirmation of the principle of equality at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. As such, the 13th Amendment represents the cashing of the promissory note that Lincoln issued at Gettysburg in 1863.
The best way to analyze the 13th Amendment, therefore, is to recognize that it was adopted before the Reconstruction Congress took office. Then one may review the dramatic debates in the House of the Representatives and the Senate over the period from early 1864 until spring of 1865, when the resolution sending the 13th Amendment to the States was adopted. The debates of that era opened with a reports and discussion on “equality before the law,” “emancipation in the District of Columbia,” employment rights for American blacks, streetcar discrimination, and similar issues before eventuating in the direct discussion of national abolition.
What makes this progression of interest is that it reveals the Congress tentatively, cautiously, approaching the tricky question of national emancipation, although having a firm grasp of the fundamental rights at stake. What all conceded the Congress had the authority to legislate for the District of Columbia, some doubted that the Congress could even propose to the nation at large. In the end the idea of the authority of the people as a whole — the ultimate ratification authority — trumped arguments about “dispossession of property” and interfering with the “police power” in the states. The matter was sensitive not so much on account of the attitudes of the states in rebellion; it was sensitive because several Border States still held slaves but had been loyal to the Union. The idea of an uncompensated emancipation seemed a hard blow to many of their advocates and was, besides, a departure from the precedent of British emancipation in the West Indies a generation earlier The argument was summed up by Senator Lazarus Powell, Democrat from Kentucky, April 8, 1864:
“We were told by the Government in every form in which it could speak, at the beginning of this revolution, that whatever might be the result, the institutions of the States would remain as they were. The President in his inaugural address, announced that he had no constitutional power to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States. The Secretary of State announced it in a communication which he sent abroad. Congress, by a resolution, announced virtually the same thing when they declared that the object of the war was to restore the Union as it was and to maintain the Constitution as it is.”
Senator Henry Wilson, Free Soiler and Republican from Massachusetts, however, would have none of it. The question for him was a matter of setting the nation “right” and removing a fundamental flaw in its fabric:
Throughout all the dominions of slavery republican government, constitutional liberty, the blessings of our free institutions were mere fables. An aristocracy enjoyed unlimited power while the people were pressed to earth and denied the inestimable privileges which by right they should have enjoyed in all the fullness designed by the Constitution.
Senator Charles Sumner, Republican from Massachusetts, summed the matter up with the observation that the proposed amendment was nothing less than the fulfillment of a promise first expressed at the founding and periodically renewed (as in the Missouri Compromise) only with great controversy. He pointed out, accordingly, that the proposed amendment was nothing less than “the idea of reproducing the Jeffersonian ordinance.”
A quick comparison of the text of the 13th Amendment with the language of Article 6 from the Northwest Ordinance will reveal the point of Sumner’s observation. What Jefferson authored and the Confederation Congress adopted and the new government under the Constitution of 1787 solemnly re-affirmed was, effectively, the incompatibility of republicanism and slavery. While that early declaration applied only to the Northwest Territory, and subsequently, the territorial division established by the Missouri Compromise (1820), its purpose and language were to declare the fundamentals of republican government, as the Northwest Ordinance on the whole does expansively (leading some to call it the “first national bill of rights”).
Although the 13th Amendment avoids the Ordinance’s language with regard to fugitive slaves, that omission is understandable where the objective is no longer to admit slavery anywhere, rather than to temporize with it where it already existed. It is safe to say, therefore, that the meaning of the 13th Amendment is authoritatively to be recovered from the intentions and meaning of the Northwest Ordinance — not a mere administrative regulation concerning slavery, but rather a dramatic recovery of the fundamental meaning of republican freedom.
W. B. Allen is Dean Emeritus, James Madison College; and Emeritus
Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University
Monday, April 23, 2012