Congressman Thaddeus Stevens Argues that a Constitutional Amendment Abolishing Slavery Would Not Itself Be Unconstitutional
Versions of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery had been introduced in the House of Representatives in December 1863 and in the Senate in January 1864. Although it was passed by the Senate, the House failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds vote to pass it before the first session of the 38th Congress ended on July 4, 1864. And so debate began again in January 1865.
On January 13, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a radical Republican who was born in Danville, Vermont and who was one of the most powerful men in Congress, spoke in support of the amendment. He answered those Congressmen who asserted—sincerely or not—that the proposed amendment would be unconstitutional:
“. . . When fifteen years ago, I was honored with a seat in this body, it was dangerous to talk against this institution [slavery], a danger which gentlemen now here will never be able to appreciate . . .
“Mr. Speaker, while I thus denounced it and uttered my sentiments in favor of universal freedom everywhere, I found in the Constitution of my country what I construed, whatever others may think, as a prohibition from touching slavery where it existed; and through all my course I recognized and bowed to a provision in that Constitution which I always regarded as its only blot. . . .
“. . . Ingenious gentlemen argue, and many honest men will delude their consciences in voting, in favor of still sustaining the institution [of slavery] on the ground that the Constitution does not allow an amendment on this point. They go on the ground that the subject of slavery has not been entrusted to us by the States, and that therefore it is reserved. Now, as the Constitution stands, that is true. But we are not now inquiring whether we have jurisdiction over slavery. We are inquiring whether the States have granted to us the power of amendment. This is the subject—not the subject of slavery, not the subject of religion, not the subject of anything else—but, have the States yielded to Congress the right to amend? If they have, then the whole question is answered. Not only have they granted that power, but wherever they intended to except anything from the power of amendment, they have said so.
He concluded his speech with these words:
“. . . I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, and who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he had striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.'”
– Submitted by Beverly Palmer
Union Captures Confederacy’s Last Important Blockade-Running Ports
January 15, 1865. After Admiral David G. Farragut’s August 1864 victory at Mobile Bay, in Alabama, Wilmington, North Carolina was the only major Confederate seaport open to trade with Europe and elsewhere. It was defended by Fort Fisher, which was so well fortified that it was known as ‘the Gibraltar of the South.‘ Union forces under General Benjamin Butler had tried to take the fort in December 1864, but had been unsuccessful; Butler had called the attack off despite orders from General Grant that it continue. Butler asserted that the fort was impregnable.
A close political ally of President Lincoln, Butler was one of the most controversial Union generals of the war for several reasons, including his harsh manner of administering occupied New Orleans and his being the first Union general to declare escaped slaves “contraband of war” and therefore not subject to being returned to their owners. He was loathed by the South and nicknamed “Beast Butler.” After his failure to take Fort Fisher, he had been relieved of command at the request of General Grant on January 8. Butler had used his numerous political connections to have a congressional hearing regarding his removal at which he had argued forcefully that his decision to call off the attack was the correct one, notwithstanding Grant’s order to the contrary.
In January sixty ships and ninety-six hundred men returned to Fort Fisher for what would be the largest army-navy operation of the war. The attack began on January 13 with a heavy bombardment that continued to January 15, which was then followed by some of the fiercest close-quarters fighting of the entire war. When the fort was finally taken and Wilmington fell, Robert E. Lee had been deprived of his most important surviving supply line. And the military career of an embarrassed Benjamin Butler was over.
After the War, as a congressman from Massachusetts, Butler would play a prominent role in the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson, and he would author the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council executive director
The American Civil War 365 Days, Margaret E. Wagner, ed., p. May 31.