Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment

By Michael Vorenberg | Go to book overview

3
Facing Freedom

After Senator Lyman Trumbull reported the antislavery amendment out of the Judiciary Committee on February 10, 1864, debate on the measure began-but not in Congress. The Senate took more than six weeks to get around to its discussion of Trumbull's resolution. By then, initial deliberation of the issue already had begun in the conversations and correspondence of politicians, legal theorists, political observers, and ordinary Americans. The time between the introduction of the amendment to the Senate and the congressional debates was truly a formative period for the measure and for African American rights in general.

During this period an amendment fever swept across the North. Local political meetings began issuing resolutions calling for constitutional revision on every issue from the abolition of slavery to the establishment of a national religion. Republicans in particular tried to puzzle out not only the meaning of the abolition amendment but the nature of the Constitution itself. Specifically, some began to consider whether one amendment alone would be enough to adjust the Constitution to fit the new state of the nation and the new status of African Americans. Perhaps the time had come to add a slate of amendments-in effect, to rewrite the Constitution. Meanwhile, some within the Democratic party began to take seriously the idea of endorsing the amendment, thereby changing the party's course on emancipation and stealing some wind from Republican sails. Oddly, the people who seemed least interested in the movement to abolish slavery by constitutional amendment were African Americans. Their lack of interest was not a sign of political apathy-the activism of African Americans during the last years of the war was as strong as ever-but instead was a reflection of their belief that the surest guarantee of equality lay in tangible economic and political power instead of a parchment promise of legal freedom.

What emerges from the study of these groups during this period is a sense of the complete diversity in American attitudes toward the Constitution and constitutional amendments. No single wartime doctrine regarding constitutional change, not even a set of competing doctrines, dominated the intellectual landscape. Instead, people's prewar attitudes toward the founding document and its revision constantly shifted in relation to changing political and social objectives. The immediate circumstances of

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Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society *
  • Title Page *
  • Contents ix
  • Illustrations xi
  • Acknowledgments xiii
  • Abbreviations xvii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Slavery's Constitution 8
  • 2 - Freedom's Constitution 36
  • 3 - Facing Freedom 61
  • 4 - Debating Freedom 89
  • 5 - The Key Note of Freedom 115
  • 6 - The War Within a War: Emancipation and the Election of 1864 141
  • 7 - A King's Cure 176
  • 8 - The Contested Legacy of Constitutional Freedom 211
  • Appendix: Votes on Antislavery Amendment 251
  • Bibliography 253
  • Index 297
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