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

By Michael Vorenberg | Go to book overview
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4
Debating Freedom

The winter of 1864 had been long and dreary for Noah Brooks. By February 1864 the esteemed Washington correspondent of the Sacramento Daily Union was downright surly. Military news, political rumor, society gossip-all had been in short supply these past few months. In desperation for something to share with his readers, Brooks turned to one of his least favorite venues: the halls of Congress.

“I have already said that 'gab' is the word for the present Congress, and 'gab' it is from morning until night, the reporter complained. There had been a time when he was enthralled by the momentous, often entertaining oratory that rang through the chambers of the Capitol. But the days of engaging debate were gone:

Now when a member rises to speak it is usually with a formidable pile of manuscripts before him, the sight of which dismays the members, who will read it in the Globe if worth reading, otherwise it is worth nothing. So the member goes on, audible or inaudible, loud or lowvoiced, graceful or loutish, it is all the same to the scattered few who remain in their seats-some writing letters, some reading newspapers, munching apples, or dozing in their comfortable chairs. Only the members of the same political faith with the party speaking profess to pay any attention, those of the opposite party generally lounging in the cloak rooms, enjoying a social smoke and chat…. Of course all this breath and labor is wasted, for the speech is not intended for any special effect in the House or Senate, but upon the country, or as used for a campaign document; printed and circulated by members, it flies all over the country, and has its small sum of influence upon the masses of the people.1

The disdain Brooks felt for congressional speeches has not been shared by historians and legal scholars who have pored through them to understand the dynamics of legislation during the Civil War and Reconstruction. History has tended to treat congressional proceedings as records of the weighty process of law making instead of the more lowly regarded business of politicking. In examining the Reconstruction amendments in particular, historians using the rich debates have too often assumed that

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1
Letter of “Castine, Sacramento Daily Union, March 14, 1864, p. 1.

-89-

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