The Thirteenth Amendment – “If Not Now, When?” (Article 17)

150 years ago, on January 31, a reluctant and divided House of Representatives voted to advance the Constitutional process to abolish slavery by sending the proposed Thirteenth Amendment to the states for ratification.

It is difficult to imagine today that many Americans once believed that the ownership of one human being by another was either proper (even Divinely inspired) or it was tolerated as acceptable. Of course there were those who opposed slavery but they had never been able to muster any serious legal steps which would lead to abolition.

In an irony of history, there was an earlier “proposed” Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which would have had the exact opposite effect of the one we have today. In 1860, in an effort to appease southern states which were considering secession, a Constitutional Amendment was proposed by the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate which would “shield domestic institutions (slavery) of the states from abolition or interference from Congress” and would perpetuate the legal status of slavery. It was assigned the next sequential number and was titled “The Proposed Thirteenth Amendment” for legislative purposes. The proposal failed by a narrow margin in Congress and, therefore, was never sent to the states for ratification; so the number “thirteen” again became available for whatever Amendment might be proposed later.

In January 1864, Republicans, who by then had a strong majority in the Senate, proposed a new Constitutional Amendment which would abolish slavery rather than shield it as in the earlier 1860 proposal. In a twist of fate, it was also designated as “The Proposed Thirteenth Amendment” by the Senate.

While President Lincoln supported this newest proposal, he did not inject himself into the Senate debate process, and the act was approved by the Senate in April 1864. It was then promptly forwarded to the House of Representatives.

And there it languished for nearly a year!

The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives had no intention of bringing the proposed Thirteenth Amendment to the floor for a vote. While the Senate had a comfortable Republican majority which made passage easier, there were still sufficient pro-slavery Democrats in the House, combined with a few Republicans who were tolerant of slavery, to prevent the required two-thirds vote for approval. Throughout 1864, President Lincoln quietly supported those who were willing to champion the Amendment in the House but he made no expansive public comments, as he was concerned that his interference might harden the opposition.  Then in the elections of November 1864, many Democrats lost their seats in the Republican landslide. However, because new Congressmen were not seated in January as they are today, those who lost would retain their voting rights for several months until the new Congress began later in 1865.

Lincoln carefully weighed his options and decided it would be best to push for a quick House vote in January 1865, without waiting for the more favorable Congress to be sworn in. That meant, however, that he would need several of these “lame duck” Democrats to vote for the Amendment. The Republican House leadership, and even most in his Cabinet, believed the vote would fail in the current Congressional term and urged the President to hold off. Another issue was that some Republican House members were ambivalent about the Amendment and would have preferred to not have to cast a public vote. (Sound familiar?)

Lincoln certainly was aware that it would be an easier vote if he waited. So why was he willing to risk a failed vote in January? Because, he faced an unprecedented dilemma!

He was confident that the Civil War would end within a few months with complete capitulation by the “states in rebellion” and, on one hand, he sincerely wanted to bring those states back into the Union as quickly as possible with minimal repercussions.

But, on the other hand, Lincoln was concerned that these “reunited” states might combine with the four Border States of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware where slavery had remained legal, to block ratification which required a “super majority” of three-fourths of all “eligible” states.

With these contrary forces at play, Lincoln thought it would be best to use the month of January 1865 to persuade enough Democrats, and those hesitant Republicans, to support the Amendment and then hold the House vote on, or before, January 31.

The President’s “persuasion process” included personal visits to House members, a tenuous and uncomfortable alliance with abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens who led the Radical Republicans, and even a few patronage job offers to “lame duck” Democratic House members.

But, his gamble paid off!

On January 31, 1865, 119 Congressmen, mostly Republicans and a few Democrats, voted “Aye” while 56 Congressman, mostly Democrats but with a few Republicans, voted “Nay” or abstained; just edging past the two-thirds legislative requirement by 5 votes.  And, because the Senate had already passed the Amendment, it could be sent directly to the states for ratification.

However, the document first made one more stop.  While there was no precedent, nor any legal requirement, for a President to sign a proposed Constitutional Amendment before it is sent to the states for ratification, Lincoln insisted that he sign this one!

Lincoln knew there were many who opposed the Amendment and that there would be difficult debates in most state legislatures; and that some states would reject it. He hoped, however, that before 1865 drew to a close, the Amendment would finally be ratified by three-fourths of the states and become law.

Lincoln was pleased when Illinois became the first state to ratify on February 1, only one day after the House vote (the state had an advance copy and received word of passage by telegraph).  He was then further gratified when two of the Border States, Maryland and Missouri, approved the Amendment within days.  However obtaining a positive vote from 27 of the 36 states was still a large hurdle; and, in fact, by the time of Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, only 21 states had ratified the Amendment.

Historians note that there may have been a bit of “sleight of hand” by Secretary of State William Seward when he declared on December 18, 1865 that 27 of the 34 eligible states had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, which then immediately became the “Law of the Land.”  Seward was well aware that the last four states for which he certified ratification were South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia, all still under Federal Military control and all with “reconstruction” legislatures.  It soon became a moot point, however, as Oregon, California, Iowa and New Jersey, four states firmly committed to the Union, ratified the Amendment a few days later.

Of course, the Thirteenth Amendment probably did not, at the time, change the beliefs of many on the matter; as it is said that “Laws cannot change the hearts of man, but only changes their actions.”

I have always thought it was tragic that Abraham Lincoln did not live to see the Thirteenth Amendment become part of our Constitution.  But I like to think that, when 119 members of the House of Representatives voted “Aye” on January 31, 1865, he must have celebrated, even if for just a moment.

And, 150 years later, on this date, so should we.

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Lincoln’s Leadership Traits (Article 16)

(The following is an excerpt from one of the power-point presentations I provide to civic and business groups)

Abraham Lincoln wrote thousands of letters, memos, and speeches in the last thirty years of his life on subjects ranging from legal case reviews, to simple friendship and family sentiments, to explanations of his thoughts on more profound issues such as slavery, secession, and religion. However, he never articulated his philosophy of leadership, I believe because he may have thought it pretentious.

But, he was a leader!

His contemporaries left volumes about his talent for leading others to his position, but sometimes, even more importantly, his ability to lead others to effective compromise. Lincoln had a deep confidence that he could influence others and he had the patience to work through resistance without rancor towards his opponents. Also, Lincoln understood the critical difference between the power of the authority of his position, versus his personal leadership and he would almost always attempt personal persuasion before issuing commands.

But, have no doubt, he could command!

Since Lincoln never defined his leadership philosophy, it is left for his contemporaries and modern authors to build their case from their own perspective. There have been numerous books describing Lincoln’s abilities to manage people. Some focused on his relationships with individual leaders around him including William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates, all Republican opponents for the 1860 Presidential nomination, and Edwin Stanton, a Democrat, who had humiliated Lincoln a few years earlier by refusing to work with him on an important U.S. patent trial; but then Lincoln asked all of these men to serve on his Cabinet.

Some authors have applied technical and scholastic terms to his leadership style such as authoritative, transformational, motivational, situational, or transactional.  In her 2005 book, “Team of Rivals” Doris Goodwin did not try to apply one of these leadership labels, but described his willingness to seek, and respect, opposing views, and to keep the contrary personalities on his cabinet focused on the national issues rather than their personal politics.  She concluded that he was a “masterful” leader.

I believe Goodwin was on the right track.  Lincoln was a natural leader who seemed to seamlessly move, as needed, among all of these various definitions of leadership depending on the circumstances.  For me, the best way to study how he led is to simply paraphrase statements he made, or others made about him.  In my opinion these are nine leadership traits which Lincoln consistently displayed.

Leadership trait #1: Treat people fairly and honestly and you may be perceived as their leader:

Even as a child, Abraham Lincoln began to display leadership potential.  One of his childhood friends, Nathanial Grigsby, said, “Lincoln was my best friend and the best friend to other of us boys.  Abe was our leader and was smarter but he didn’t hold it over us.”  Another said, “He told the truth and never courted favors.”

Leadership trait #2: Be willing to take a risk and accept a leadership position, even if you know you do not yet have 100% of the information:

During the Black Hawk War in 1832, Lincoln was selected as Captain of the New Salem Militia.  He accepted the position without any basic military skills and “set about learning drill commands” but he never quite got the nomenclature down.  He said if he couldn’t remember a command, he would just make one up.  And he did!

Once his men were marching in a wide line and came to a fence with a narrow opening and he could not remember the commands to have his men form into a double line and turn through the small opening.  So he said, “Men Attention, fall out for five minutes, and then regroup on the other side of the fence.”

Leadership trait #3: Try to work with those who have different ideas or disagree with you.

As an Illinois State Congressman, he was elected to four consecutive terms and always served in a leadership role.  In his last term, he was elected as Speaker of the House, despite the fact that his Whig Party was in the minority, but many Democrats voted for him to lead the Illinois House because he could get things accomplished.  One Democratic leader said, “With Lincoln, a deal said was a deal done.”

Leadership trait #4: If you cannot reach agreement, leave open the opportunity for a future entree.

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States, and Lincoln left us a great example of failing to agree but leaving room for a future entree.  After the 1865 Hampton Roads Peace Conference at which Lincoln and Stephens failed to reach any accord, Lincoln arranged for the release of Stephens’ nephew, a Confederate officer, who was a prisoner of war.

Leadership trait #5: Don’t let a poor first impression guide your relationships.

Judge David Davis, a longtime friend, said that Lincoln, speaking of another lawyer once said, “Judge, I don’t like that man, I should like to get to know him better.”

Leadership trait #6: Do not reprimand in haste or in anger.

When Union General Meade decided to not pursue General Lee’s forces after the battle at Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote Meade a scathing letter in part saying, “He was in your grasp and, to have closed upon him, would have ended the War.  As it is, the War will be prolonged indefinitely.  Your golden opportunity is gone and I am distressed immeasurable because of it.”  But, Meade never saw the letter:  It was found later among Lincoln’s papers marked “never signed, never sent.”

Lincoln once said, “Any reply uttered in haste while angry will, more often than not, do more harm to the sender than to the intended recipient,”  (I recently saw a humorous, but appropriate, post on Facebook with a picture of Lincoln saying, “Think before you hit ‘send’ after typing that mean-spirited e-mail!”)

Leadership Trait #7: Be willing to accept blame (sometimes even when the problem may not have been entirely your fault) and be willing to share credit with subordinates (even when you may have been largely responsible for a success).

In another letter to General Meade, a few months after Gettysburg, Lincoln sent him a revised battle order and wrote: “General, the order I enclose has no other record.  If you choose to follow it, and you succeed, you need not publish the order.  If it fails, publish it.  Then, if successful, you can have the credit, if it fails, I will take the responsibility.”

Leadership trait #8: Admit when you are wrong.

After General Ulysses S. Grant had won the battle at Vicksburg Mississippi, he moved on to capture Jefferson Davis’s plantation further south in the state.  Lincoln had earlier expressed concerns whether Grant should move deeper into Mississippi, but now wrote this letter to Grant.  “Dear General Grant, I simply want to say to you that when you decided to do this, I thought you were wrong.  When you moved (deeper) into Mississippi, I thought it was a mistake.  General Grant, I simply wish to say, I was wrong and you were right.”

Leadership trait #9: Hold firm in your basic beliefs but pull others to you with compassion and forgiveness, not retribution or persecution.

Lincoln wanted “reconstruction” of the former Confederate States back into the Union to be as prompt as possible, with minimal political restrictions, and without vengeful public trials of the leaders.  He said, “If you hold a man out and away from you, how can he desire to rejoin us?  If we pull them to us with fairness and without consideration that they were ever away from us, we can be one again.  Let the rebels just go home!  Enough lives have been sacrificed.  We must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and Union.”

However, after Lincoln’s death, the Radical Republican majorities in the House and Senate passed harsh reconstruction laws upon the South, which caused sectional issues for another 100 years.  I believe if he had lived, Lincoln’s leadership would have resulted in a more moderate and forgiving reconstruction policy, but also with better defined Civil Rights for the freed slaves.

These following two contemporaries offer interesting assessments of Lincoln as a leader because they both originally questioned if he was qualified to be their leader.

Edwin Stanton agreed to become Lincoln’s Secretary of War only because he knew the first Secretary of War, James Cameron was detrimental to the Union.  Stanton considered that Lincoln was not qualified to be a lawyer, let alone the President, and Stanton said that he would be able to manage the War Department in spite of what he expected to be “Mr. Lincoln’s attempted interferences.”  However, over the next three years the two men worked together almost every day and, after the first few months, developed a respectful relationship.  Upon Lincoln’s death, Stanton uttered the famous words: “Now he belongs to the ages” and in a letter a year later wrote, “I came to love Mr. Lincoln and I, and the country, still mourn his loss.”

William Tecumseh Sherman was from Ohio but had many close friends in the South.  He attended West Point and, after the Mexican War, he relocated to the south and married the daughter of a wealthy merchant; and in that social setting it was well known that he did not oppose slavery but was a fierce Unionist and cautioned his friends against secession.

When the Civil War started, he rejoined the Union Army but expressed grave concerns about Lincoln’s ability to be an effective President.  Even after two years, in 1863, he wrote privately that: “I am concerned that Mr. Lincoln is not advantageously using the Union’s military strengths.”   However, as he had more personal interaction with Lincoln in 1864 and 1865, his opinion dramatically changed.  After a series of meetings with Lincoln and Grant, just a few weeks before Lincoln’s death, Sherman wrote to his wife, “I recall thinking that of all of the men I have ever known, President Lincoln seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.”

Try to imagine if only a few of today’s prominent politicians could consistently meet these nine leadership traits.  Unfortunately, most of us cannot directly influence people at that level.  However, we can teach our children and grandchildren these traits and, if we do, we just might spring a bunch of “New Lincolns” loose in this country over the next few years.

Now that would be leadership!

Gary Alan Dorris:  Contact the author at