An interesting research paper topic is Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Abraham Lincoln, as President of the United States, and Thaddeus Stevens, as the leader of the “radical” Republicans and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, both had an interest in abolishing slavery. The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was their mutual goal. But Stevens and Lincoln had radically different personalities, as well as radically different methods of leadership, and were in frequent conflict. In the end, they successfully worked together to pass the 13th Amendment and put an end to slavery in the United States, but how they did this, and the obstacles they faced, is a fascinating story.
Thaddeus Stevens, Republican from Pennsylvania, was the undisputed leader of the radical Republicans that wanted slavery terminated immediately at the beginning of the Civil War. Unfortunately for Stevens and other abolitionists, they did not have sufficient political clout to do this. The majority of the Democrats in congress opposed the abolishment of slavery, and the majority of the soldiers that had enlisted in northern armies did not believe, at least at the war’s inception, in risking their lives for the slaves. They were fighting to “preserve the Union.”
Stevens, the only member of the House of Representatives to ever be known as “dictator,” did not care if he was popular or respected. But his methods of intimidation had less influence across the aisle with the Democrats. His inability to impose his will with the opposing party frustrated him almost as much as his inability to intimidate Abraham Lincoln—whom Stevens perceived as “tardy” on the slavery issue. Lincoln, as leader of the entire country, understood that it would take cooperation among both political parties, as well as the support of soldiers and citizens of the North, to build the sort of consensus that would pass the Thirteenth Amendment in Congress and then attain its ratification by two-thirds of the state legislatures. To do this, Lincoln had to not only transform the war’s purpose from preserving the Union to freeing the slaves, but he also had to use all his political skill to convince enough congressional Democrats to switch sides in the slavery debate.
When the Thirteenth Amendment was brought to a vote in Congress in April 1864, it was passed by the Senate with a vote of 38 to 6. But the required two-thirds majority was defeated in the House of Representatives by a vote of 93 to 65. The attempt to abolish slavery in 1864 was almost exclusively a Republican Party effort–only four Democrats voted for it.
Consequently, many influential members of congress argued that Lincoln should wait until the next congress was elected and re-submit the Thirteenth Amendment, hoping for success with it then. But Lincoln would have none of it. He was convinced that he at last had an opportunity to end slavery—an institution that he had deplored since he was a young man—and did not want to take chances. He personally led the fight to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, and used all of his political skills to change the mind of reluctant Democrats.
Consequently, the 38th Congress—the same congress that had rejected the Thirteenth Amendment less than 9 months earlier, passed it on January 31, 1865 and sent it to the states for ratification. The vote in the House of Representatives was 119-56. All 86 republicans voted for it, along with 15 democrats and 18 members of the Union Party. 50 Democrats still opposed it, but Lincoln—and Stevens—had succeeded in their goal.
The details of how they did this—their personal relationship, their correspondence, their political maneuvers—is highly illustrative of how the American political process is supposed to work. Interesting research questions on this subject include: (1) Would Lincoln have acted as quickly on the emancipation issue if Thaddeus Stevens had not been so adamant about its immediate passage? (2) Was Lincoln’s sense of timing for the abolition of slavery better than Stevens’s? (3) What if Lincoln had waited for the 39th Congress to address the passage of the 13th Amendment—would it have successfully passed? (4) Who were the democrats that Lincoln swayed to support the 13th amendment and what political deals did he offer? (5) Why was the Democratic party so adamantly against freeing the slaves?