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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

In Context: The 13th Amendment

I was so depressed after the 2002 election that I looked for something to take my mind off of politics. When the Girl Scouts asked for help in fundraising, I said no – but I added that I would like some contact with girls. They supplied a group who were six or seven years old, largely home-schooled, and living nearby. We created an unconventional troop that met at the local library and focused on reading. I gave paperback books to the girls, and we read classics such as Black Beauty and Pollyanna.

We met there until the librarian complained about cookie crumbs on the floor, and then we moved to my house. We cooked and ate and played games and went on field trips and made many happy memories. The six-year-olds now are sixteen and in high school, but when they aren’t piled high with homework and school activities, some still want to get together.

So on a day that turned out to be both Inauguration Day and Martin Luther King Day, I thought it was appropriate to take them to Steve Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” If you have seen or read reviews of it, you know that the entire two-and-a-half hour movie is set in January of 1865. The story develops two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Most of a year has passed since the Senate adopted a constitutional amendment that would abolish slavery, and Lincoln is pressing his Cabinet and supportive congressmen to push the amendment through the House.

Thus especially at the beginning, when there is a lot of legalese and parliamentary plotting, one needs a level of knowledge that understandably is beyond most teenage girls. The movie nonetheless held their attention, particularly the parts on Mary Todd Lincoln and sons Tad and Robert, and they were glad that they saw it. But Spielberg could have done a better job of explicating the issues and introducing the various politicians. I’m delighted that he’s bringing this bit of political history to an era that long has emphasized only military history, but almost everyone – even historians -- could have used more context and explication. Here’s some.

* * *

Historians acknowledge that the Emancipation Proclamation was in many ways a huge hypocrisy: it liberated slaves only in areas where the federal government was not in charge. Slaves remained slaves in the border states of Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maryland, which had not seceded from the Union but did have legal slavery. Lincoln focused on keeping those states in the Union and did not emancipate slaves there because he did not want to upset the upper classes by depriving them of their human property.

He also argued that he had no right to do so without a constitutional amendment abolishing state laws on slavery – but he believed that under his war powers as commander in chief, he did have the right to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation, in his view, was more a military tactic than a document proclaiming personal freedom. His army officers read it to slaves as they conquered rebellious states, but the aim was not so much to abolish slavery as a legal institution. Instead, it intended to inflict harm on the Confederacy by depriving it of its labor supply.

In Tampa, for example, emancipation was announced on May 6, 1864, after a small battle in which naval Union forces took Fort Brooke from the Home Guard (the equivalent of today’s National Guard, largely composed of men too old to join the Confederate army). Many of the newly freed slaves, called contrabands, joined up with Union forces – to the dismay of most generals, who were not equipped to deal with thousands of blacks following the troops who liberated them.

But in the border states and as far north as Delaware, slavery remained legal. Delaware, in fact, was the last to abolish it, in December 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution. Thus the war truly was about states’ rights in the sense of whether or not a state could maintain slavery within its borders – as well as whether or not individual states could secede from the United States.

With newly created West Virginia, there were five states that were ostensibly Union and yet still had slavery, as well as votes in Congress. Nor were all congressmen from non-slave states such as New York and Connecticut necessarily in favor of abolition in the South. They had trade ties there and saw this profound change to the economy as excessively liberal.

* * *

So the Emancipation Proclamation was not enough, and people who aimed to completely and permanently abolish slavery pressed for an amendment to the US Constitution that would do so. The founders deliberately made the Constitution very difficult to change: it requires two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the state legislatures. Moreover, at the time of the Civil War, it really never had been done.

The first ten amendments are the Bill of Rights, added in 1797 shortly after the Constitution itself was written. The Eleventh and Twelfth were largely housekeeping changes, intended to clarify points that had been omitted. The Eleventh, added in 1798, was legalese on the judiciary, and the Twelfth, added in 1804, spelled out the methodology of electing the president. (It was needed because Vice President Aaron Burr treacherously claimed that he had been elected president in 1800 because he received the same number of electoral votes as his running mate, Thomas Jefferson. Yes, many politicians really were worse in those days!)

Thus the Constitution essentially never had been amended on an issue that affected everyone. It was in fact hard to do, and as the movie makes clear, the pro-amendment forces needed twenty House votes at the beginning of January 1865. By January 31st, they had them – but not by the principled methods that modern people like to assign to the past.

Lincoln’s trusted officials paid several hard-drinking, profanity-laden men as go-betweens to make deals. The easiest pickings were congressmen who had lost their seats in the November 1864 election and were looking for new jobs in January 1865. There was no civil service system then (read “federal bureaucracy”), and it was routine for elected officials to give patronage positions to their political supporters.

Lincoln and his pro-amendment supporters were no different, and they went though lists of potential jobs and lame-duck congressmen whose votes they needed. Some congressmen stood firm on what they regarded as principle, but the movie shows one about-to-be-unemployed man selling his vote for human liberty merely to be postmaster of a small town. Others took cash.

And that was how the Thirteenth Amendment passed the House of Representatives. Although presidents have no official role in constitutional amendments, Lincoln signified his approval by signing the joint resolution of Congress, and it went to the states for ratification on February 1. The movie does not follow the ratification effort, which also was heavy with fraud and force. Instead, Spielberg went on to foreshadow Lincoln’s death on April 14. The final scenes show young Tad grieving – and Tad himself would die soon after his father. Mary Todd Lincoln already had lost two children by that point, and her fragile sanity would go over the edge.

* * *

The film is faithful to the facts in showing both of the Lincolns as in need of modern anti-depressants, but it is wildly over the top in its depiction of the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, a black woman named Elizabeth Keckley. Although the movie doesn’t spell it out, Keckley was so talented that she managed to buy her freedom, as well as that of her half-white son, who died in battle in 1861. Before the war, she also had been dressmaker to Varina Howell Davis while Jefferson Davis was a senator, before the Davises moved to Richmond and he became president of the Confederacy.

Keckley, of course, stayed in Washington, and it is true that the First Lady confided in her and that Mrs. Keckley brought Mrs. Lincoln solace when no one else could. The movie goes far beyond the true scene, however, when it several times portrayed the two women sitting together in the House gallery. Even now, First Ladies rarely watch congressional debates, and certainly none in that era would have taken an African-American employee as a guest. The fascinating facts of Keckley’s life are enough – why do filmmakers insist on omitting much of what is real while adding inaccurate embellishments?

And although two other obscure women were shown to have political opinions, neither was an abolitionist leader – while in reality, thousands of white women were fundamental to black freedom. Among them were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Stanton was so dedicated to the cause that she went to the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London in 1840 – on her honeymoon. Her feminism began there, when male delegates refused to seat her and other women who were duly elected by abolitionist societies. In 1848, she and Philadelphia’s Lucretia Mott organized the first women’s rights gathering in Stanton’s hometown of Seneca Falls, New York – and I was so pleased to hear President Obama mention Seneca Falls in his Inaugural Address!

Thus by the time that Lincoln got around to working for the Thirteenth Amendment, these and countless other women had been toiling in that field for decades. Even though they lacked the vote (and the biggest uproar in the movie was when a congressman mentioned the possibility that if black men could vote, white women also might demand it), no one ever questioned women’s right to petition. This was their main political tool.

Astute politicians themselves, Anthony and Stanton suspended activism for women’s rights during the war and instead formed an organization called the Loyal League. Hundreds of women attended its founding meeting in New York City, including such luminaries as Lucy Stone, Angelina Grimke Weld, and the Reverend Antoinette Brown Blackwell. It was intended to put pressure on Lincoln to abolish slavery, and it succeeded in that goal. In just a little more than a year, the Loyal League had 5,000 members who collected almost 400,000 petition signatures against slavery.

Moreover, they charged a penny per signature and thus had enough money to maintain a New York headquarters. Given that women’s organizations still were seen as radically new – even church-sponsored missionary societies were controversial – this was an important step on the way to full equality for both blacks and women. And as President Obama reminded us, we still are engaged in that journey.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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