A House No Longer Divided

February 2008


On January 31, 1865, the House of Representatives of the United States decided to take the afternoon off. They had just voted 119 to 56 in favor of passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. There was so much cheering and leaping in the aisles that they decided it was useless to continue working that day. Lincolnís words, ďA house divided against itself cannot standĒ must have echoed through the hall that afternoon, as loud as the whooping. The Senate had already passed the amendment by a vote of 38 to 6 in April of the previous year, much more austerely, as one would expect.


Lincoln knew that the Emancipation Proclamation, signed January 1, 1863, did not legally free all slaves forever, so he began working to establish an amendment guaranteeing a permanent end to slavery. After the House initially rejected the amendment in 1864, Lincoln pressed that the amendment be added to the Republican Party platform for the upcoming presidential election.


Lincoln liked to take no chances so naturally began employing his persuasive talents to ensure that favorable votes would be cast for the next House vote on the amendment. Further, he granted statehood to the pro-Union, strongly Republican Nevada territory on October 31, even though other territories had much stronger populations and more viable economies. Not only did Lincoln carry the state in the presidential election eight days later, but Nevada became one of the required 27 states to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment.


Illinois was the first state to ratify the amendment on February 1, 1865, and Georgia became the twenty-seventh ratifying state on December 6, 1865. Five more states ratified within the next six weeks. The final four states took quite a while longer, with Texas ratifying in 1870, Delaware in 1901 (on Lincolnís birthday, February 12), Kentucky in 1976, and lastly, Mississippi on March 16, 1995.


As an interesting historical footnote, abolition of slavery wasnít the first proposed Thirteenth Amendment. The first, passed in 1810, would have revoked the citizenship of anyone either accepting a foreign title of nobility or accepting any foreign payment without Congressional authorization. Then, in February 1861, with President Buchanan still at the helm, the Corwin Amendment, forbidding any constitutional amendment from interferring with slavery, was approved by Congress and ratified by two states. This was a last-minute attempt to patch the leaky boat, as several states had already seceeded and the nation was on the brink of war. It seems odd to try to pass an amendment to stop another amendment from being passed. Many agreed, apparently, because the amendment received only the bare minimum number of votes to squeak through. Obviously, neither of these amendments were ratified by the required three-fourths of the states.