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Henry Clay and the 13th Amendment

February 6, 2019

Henry Clay died in June 1852.  In a eulogy Lincoln said: “[Clay] ever was on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery.”  Unfortunately, neither Clay nor Lincoln lived to see the 13th Amendment ratified.  Lincoln died in April 1865 and the amendment was not ratified by the states until December of that year.  However, both Clay and Lincoln had a part in getting the 13th Amendment passed by Congress.

First, let’s review the text of the 13th Amendment.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This went far beyond the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed only those slaves in the seceding states.  Lincoln demonstrated his skill as a politician when he persuaded the House to pass the Amendment in January 1865.  The Senate had already passed it in early 1864.  In the meantime Lincoln had won re-election.  He already had the support of many Congressmen, but he still needed to speak with some key individuals.

Congressman James S. Rollins of Missouri had been elected in 1860 running on the Constitutional Union ticket.  Although he strongly supported Lincoln’s anti-secessionist measures, he was slow to embrace emancipation.  Lincoln reminded him that back in the 1840’s they had both been Whigs and followers of the antislavery Henry Clay.  Rollins became convinced, and Lincoln encouraged him to use his influence so others would support the Amendment.

When Henry Clay died, Lincoln eulogized him.  When Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas, he found it advantageous to quote Clay.  Finally, in 1865 Lincoln invoked the memory of this great statesman in order to get the 13th Amendment passed.

One Comment
  1. Banning the slave trade in DC was a career long fight for Clay.

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