Sunday, October 28, 2012

"I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power."

A new film titled “Lincoln” will soon debut in theaters.  The movie is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and covers the final four months of President Lincoln's life and the ending of slavery.  The film’s director, Steven Spielberg said that "what permanently ended slavery was the very close vote in the House of Representatives over the Thirteenth Amendment – that story I'm excited to tell."  In one of the movie trailers, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the role of Abraham Lincoln, we see the President fighting against his opponents to abolish slavery. The trailer ends with a great line delivered by Lewis: “I am the president of the United States of America… clothed in immense power!”  Did Lincoln really say that?  The answer is found in history…

“While the Emancipation Proclamation was taking its effect in the field, as the Union army advanced, Lincoln also supported Radical Republicans who began to advocate a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery everywhere in the United States. On December 14, 1863, Ohio Congressman James M. Ashley introduced such an amendment in the House of Representatives. Senator John Brooks Henderson of Missouri, a border state that still sanctioned slavery, followed suit on January 11, 1864, courageously submitting a joint resolution for an amendment abolishing slavery.

The proposed amendment passed in the Senate on April 8, 1864, with a vote of 38 to 6. Two months later, however, it was defeated in the House of Representatives, 95 to 66 (or by another account, 93-65), shy of the 2/3 necessary for approval. Lincoln, not about to give up, made abolition a central plank of the National Union platform during his re-election campaign. He argued,

“When the people in revolt, with a hundred days of explicit notice, that they could, within those days, resume their allegiance, without the overthrow of their institution, and that they could not so resume it afterwards, elected to stand out, such [an] amendment of the Constitution as [is] now proposed, became a fitting, and necessary conclusion to the final success of the Union cause. Such alone can meet and cover all cavils…” (Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 7, 380).

Lincoln’s victory over McClellan in 1864 gave him a new mandate and enough seats in the House to eventually guarantee passage of the stalled amendment. Not content to wait until the new Congress met in March, the amendment’s supporters brought the measure to another vote in the House on January 31, 1865.

On being informed that the amendment was still two votes short, Lincoln is reported to have told the Republican Congressmen: “I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all … time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured.  I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done, but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes ...” (John B. Alley, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, ed., Rice, 1886 ed., p 585-6. Per Goodwin, p. 687). [emphasis added]

The outcome of the vote was in doubt until the final hour. A Pennsylvania Democrat, Archibald McAllister, opened the debate by explaining why he had changed his vote from a “Nay” to an “Aye.” He had been in favor of exhausting all means of conciliation, McAllister stated, but was now satisfied that nothing short of independence would satisfy the Southern Confederacy, and that therefore it must be destroyed, and he must cast his vote against its cornerstone, and declare eternal war with the enemies of the country. Fellow Pennsylvania Democrat Alexander Hamilton Coffroth also changed his vote, and gave a speech advocating passage. Arguments continued until, finally, the votes were tallied. This time it passed, by a vote of 119 to 56, with 8 abstentions.  When Speaker Colfax declared the results, “a moment of silence succeeded, and then, from floor and galleries, burst a simultaneous shout of joy and triumph, spontaneous, irrepressible and uncontrollable, swelling and prolonged in one vast volume of reverberating thunder…” (Report of the special committee on the passage by the House of Representatives of the constitutional amendment for the abolition of slavery. January 31st, 1865: The Action of the Union League Club on the Amendment, February 9, 1865, in “From Slavery to Freedom.” American Memory, Library of Congress).”