On today’s date, January 31 in 1865 the United States House of Representatives by the thinnest of margins passed with a two thirds majority the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which read:
“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.”
With the passage of this amendment, the U.S.Congress at long last abolished slavery in the United States, putting to rest the single most divisive issue that our nation had ever faced, one which had been eating away at the existence of the Union since the moment of her inception. Now after decades of the bitterest turmoil, and after four years of bloody civil war the matter had been settled, pending the ratification of the amendment by two thirds of the states, which would end up coming before the end of 1865.
The Moment of Passage
The following excerpts from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s superb book “Team of Rivals” describes the moments just before and after the passage of the amendment:
“After every Democrat who had wanted to speak had been heard, the voting began. “Hundreds of tally sheets had been distributed on the floor and in the galleries,” (Congressman James M.) Ashley (of Ohio – above) recorded. It appeared at first that the amendment had fallen two or three votes short of the requisite two-thirds margin. The floor was in tumult when Speaker (of the House Schuyler) Colfax stood to announce the final tally. His voice shaking, he said, “On the passage of the Joint Resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States the ayes have 119, the noes 36. The constitutional majority of two thirds having voted in the affirmative, the Joint Resolution has passed.” Without the five democrats who had changed their votes, the amendment would have lost.
“For a moment there was a pause of utter silence,” Noah Brooks reported, “as if the voices of the dense mass of spectators were choked by strong emotion. Then there was an explosion, a storm of cheers, the like of which probably no Congress of the United States had ever heard before.”
“Before the members left their seats ,” Congressman Arnold recalled, “the roar of Artillery from Capitol Hill announced to the people of Washington that the amendment had passed.” Ashley brought to the War Department a list of all those who had voted in favor. (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton (above) ordered three additional batteries “fire one hundred guns with their heaviest charges” while he slowly read each name aloud, proclaiming, “History will embalm them in great honor.”
“Lincoln’s friends raced to the White House to share the news. “The passage of the resolution,” recalled Arnold, “filled his heart with joy. He saw in it the consummation of his own great work, the Emancipation Proclamation.“
“Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2005