Liberty in the Reach of All Men?

13th Amendment

"Scene in the House on the passage of the proposition to amend the Constitution, January 31, 1865" Courtesy of the Library of Congress

By Scott Ackerman

February 1865 was a month of great promise for President Lincoln.  On the battlefield, General William Sherman had begun to cut a path of destruction through the Carolinas, making a final push to link up with General Grant’s army outside Petersburg, and force the surrender of several Confederate armies. Perhaps even more momentous was that in state legislatures across the North, the 13th Amendment, which would ban slavery in the United States, was under consideration.  By the end of the month a whopping 18 states would voice their assent. 

Today, it is easy to obscure the promise of this moment behind the overall failure of Reconstruction; and given the violence, the enactment of the Black Codes, and the rise of Jim Crow laws, the tendency is understandable. And yet we should caution against viewing this moment through the lens of hindsight.  After all, slaves, freedmen, and African Americans serving in the Union Army saw this moment as portending greater things to come, and a critical step in their deliverance from bondage.  For example, David Williamson, an African American artillerist serving in the Union army undoubtedly spoke for many when he declared “the time has come when liberty is in the reach of all men without respect to color.”  Furthermore, as historian Chandra Manning has written, the 13th Amendment was submitted for ratification at the exact moment when white Union soldier’s opinions on race were “malleable,” and when Confederates “exhibited the least ability or inclination to resist any reconstruction measures, including racial reform.” Thus, the vicious backlash that would take place in towns throughout the South happened in part because African Americans had “justifiable confidence” in their “ability to reap the benefits and promises of the nation they had helped to regenerate.”  That this “confidence” was misplaced, and the promise left unfulfilled would be apparent to many during the following years, but in February 1865 that betrayal was still in the future.

For quotations see Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York, Random House, 2007) pg. 220.

Mr. Ackerman is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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