In the Wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln Summons Congress’s Foremost Legal Mind to Discuss the Imminent Introduction of the 13th Amendment Abolishing Slavery

In a letter mentioning going to Church, he writes to meet with Senator (and former judge) Jacob Collamer, who had used his legal expertise to assist Lincoln on numerous occasions by taking a hand in complex legislation that required legal knowledge and creativity.

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Lincoln sought to find a position on the push for the amendment, at a time when he was still formulating it

On Thursday, January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but this did not abolish slavery altogether, which changed the complexion of the Civil War. Freeing the slaves was now...

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In the Wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln Summons Congress’s Foremost Legal Mind to Discuss the Imminent Introduction of the 13th Amendment Abolishing Slavery

In a letter mentioning going to Church, he writes to meet with Senator (and former judge) Jacob Collamer, who had used his legal expertise to assist Lincoln on numerous occasions by taking a hand in complex legislation that required legal knowledge and creativity.

Lincoln sought to find a position on the push for the amendment, at a time when he was still formulating it

On Thursday, January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but this did not abolish slavery altogether, which changed the complexion of the Civil War. Freeing the slaves was now a primary goal. Yet while it decreed that all slaves in the areas held by the rebellious Confederates were free, it did not apply to the slave states loyal to the union (like Maryland and Kentucky), nor to slaves in Union-occupied territory. Thus, it only applied in areas where Lincoln exercised no authority, and left undisturbed slavery where he in fact had authority. For these reasons, abolitionists deemed the measure half-hearted, and it resulted in confusion about the future of slavery in various locales. So as Pennsylvania Republican Alexander McClure, a prominent supporter, correspondent and biographer of President Lincoln, wrote, “While the Emancipation Proclamation inflicted a mortal wound upon slavery and assured its absolute extinction sooner or later throughout the entire country Lincoln fully appreciated the fact that much was yet to be done even beyond victories in the field to efface the blot of slavery from the Republic.”

In the immediate wake of the Proclamation, Representative James Wilson of Iowa, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, let it be known that he intended to report a proposed amendment to the Constitution to prohibit slavery throughout the United States. This Wilson would do this on Wednesday, January 14, 1863, and in time it would result in the 13th Amendment and put an end to slavery. The general uncertainty and imminent action by Wilson called for Lincoln to take a position just days after the Emancipation Proclamation, and perhaps take action. At the time, Lincoln was still considering graduated emancipation for the border states, a more conservative position, through he knew all slavery must be brought to an end.

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1842, Jacob Collamer became a prominent Whig leader and advocate of the anti-slavery cause. President Taylor selected Collamer to serve as Postmaster General. He became a circuit court judge in Vermont from 1850 to 1854. A conservative anti-slavery Republican, he was elected to the Senate in 1855, shortly after the formation of the new party. Because of his judicial experience, and feel for the law, he became known as the best lawyer in Congress. He became a respected voice against slavery and a prominent supporter of the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. In 1861, Collamer authored the bill to invest the President with new war powers and give Congressional approval to the war measures that Lincoln had taken under his own authority at the start of the war. Collamer also took a leading role in passage of the second Confiscation Act in 1862. Historian Allan Nevins noted that “Early in the debate [on the Confiscation legislation] he expressed the opinion that private property could not be confiscated without judicial action, and offered an amendment to substitute due process for legislative seizure; and he with Fessenden and others hammered the legislation into such form that Lincoln could approve it.” Thus Collamer used his legal expertise to assist Lincoln on numerous occasions by taking a hand in complex legislation that required legal knowledge and creativity.

Knowing Collamer’s position as an anti-slavery man, yet a conservative, and as the premier legal mind in Congress, it is more than probable that the President wished to confer him on this subject, and urgently. Autograph note signed, Washington, Sunday, January 11, 1863, to Collamer. “If not going to church please call and see me at once; and if to church, please call as soon after, as convenient. A. Lincoln.”

Walter Crockett in his “History of Vermont” states that Collamer was at church and that “as soon as he returned he proceeded to the White House where he remained twelve hours in consultation with the President.” Evidently Lincoln knew of the Senator’s church habits and his standing as “a Christian man and a Christian gentleman.” Collamer was a church member of long standing and it was Congressman Grider of Kentucky in his address to the House of Representatives who stated that “when I had the honor to be . . .in the House with Judge Collamer, we had a congressional prayer meeting. I remember distinctly that Judge Collamer, as a Christian gentleman was uniformly there and participated in the devotional exercises. They were of frequent occurrence, and he used to attend.”

Alas, no record exists documenting the very lengthy conversation Lincoln had with Collamer, but its topic seems without doubt.

Congress took no further action against slavery until later in the year, perhaps at Collamer’s urging. Later in 1863, Representative Wilson described slavery as a “condemned [but] unexecuted culprit.” He then asked the obvious question: “Should we not … provide for the execution?” On December 14, 1863, Rep. James Ashley of Ohio—a longtime opponent of slavery—introduced a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Sen. John Henderson of Missouri—a former slave-owner—then introduced a similar measure in the Senate. These resulted in the 13th Amendment. As Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts—a longtime abolitionist—explained, the 13th Amendment “will obliterate the last lingering vestiges of the slave system; its chattelizing, degrading and bloody codes; its dark, malignant barbarizing spirit. … Then the sacred rights of human nature, the hallowed family relations of husband and wife, parent and child, will be protected by the guardian spirit of that law which makes sacred alike the proud homes and lowly cabins of freedom.”

In April 1864, the Senate passed the 13th Amendment, Collamer voting aye, but the measure failed in the House two months later. The Amendment’s fate would ultimately be determined by the election of 1864. Following his reelection in November 1864, Lincoln began to push aggressively for congressional passage of the Amendment. Congress finally approved the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865. The next day, and even though the President has no formal role in the Amendment process, Lincoln took the unusual step of signing the amendment before sending it along to the states for ratification, calling it a “King’s cure” for the evils of slavery. The 13th Amendment was finally ratified on December 6, 1865, forever banning slavery in the United States. By then President Lincoln was dead.

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