A weekend to think about this nation at war and at risk


The coming weekend marks not one but significant dates in American history. Sunday, December 7, is familiar to many Americans as the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the efficient cause of the Second World War. Since 1994 that global tragedy has been officially designated as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, a date that FDR correctly predicted would live in infamy. (See earlier post)

Less heralded is the preceding day, December 6, the historic date on which slavery in this nation was abolished. It was on that day in 1865 that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865, was ratified by the states.

The Amendment is as unequivocal as it is brief:

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

The story that led up to final ratification of the 13th Amendment is a rich saga of politics, war and presidential power. In 1863 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring, “All persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln actually used his War Powers (a fascinating story in itself) to declare the ban on slavery; still, his power was limited to the Confederate-controlled states.

Thus, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery. Rather, it had to be followed by the Constitutional Amendment that was not forthcoming until late in 1865. Ratification came when Georgia, the 27th state to do so, cast the vote that gave the Amendment the three-fourths of the states necessary for ratification.

On December 8, 1865 this notice appeared in the Lowell Daily Citizen and News, Lowell, Massachusetts:

Georgia—the twenty-seventh state – has adopted the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. We have in reserve the states of California and Oregon and the embryo state of Colorado. The legislature of California is now in session, and initial steps for adopting the amendment are already reported. The sublime but noiseless work of prohibition by the supreme law is so nearly consummated, that we may very soon look for the proclamation announcing the accomplished fact. What a grand climax to the process of great historic events which mark our recent history!

At the end of December 1865, following ratification of the 13th Amendment, this newspaper article was published with the title “What Is a Man?”

It is very evident; therefore, from this stand point of the matter, that character makes the man, and not color. And if character is the standard of manhood, we cannot see any just reason for withholding the titles to manhood from any one on account of his physical nature. It is not because a person is six feet high and he is a ‘man’, nor because he has a big brow and thick straight hair, but because he has the moral qualifications of a man. Why then exclude a person form this position because he has a black face. If he displays the character, the moral character of a man with a white face, who, in the judgment of his fellows, is deserving of the title ‘man’ in its fullest sense, common sense and justice, we surely think demands that he receive the same honorable distinction. (published in The Colored American, Augusta Georgia, December 20, 1865

The story of the abolition of slavery is much more complex – and human – than the textbooks suggest. The relationship of the commemorations on December 6 and December 7 give pause, particularly at this moment in time, perhaps.

There are countless books devoted to both Pearl Harbor and the 13th Amendment. Since time is short, there are also relevant and instructive resources online, many from government sources, that offer immense collections of digitized primary documents, video interviews, guides, newspapers, guides to other resources and more. Examples include: