150 years ago today the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolishing slavery was ratified– it’s adoption was proclaimed on 18th December by Secretary of State William H. Seward. As we have explored on the site, the ideological motivations for the service of Union Irish soldiers (where it existed) seem to have been strongly tilted towards preserving the Union, rather than the abolition of slavery. Indeed, it is fair to say that the majority of Irish troops, overwhelmingly Democratic in political leaning, were either ambivalent towards emancipation or even openly hostile towards it (for some discussion on this area see posts here and here, and for the types of views expressed in Irish letters see here). Of course, when so many tens of thousands of Irishmen served in the war, it is impossible to speak in generalities with respect to their views. Many surely felt like Patrick Guiney, Colonel of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry, who in 1866 was of the opinion that the ‘seething despotism…of human slavery was menacing and shaking this Republic…’ before the war erupted. The fact remains that the service of many thousands of these troops helped to secure the victory which made the Thirteenth Amendment possible. It’s passage was also big news in Ireland. Given the significance of the event, I have reproduced below how The Freeman’s Journal in Dublin reported on it, sharing their views on the history of the peculiar institution in America. (1)
SLAVERY, at last, is at an end. Mr. SEWARD’S Proclamation announces its abolition throughout the United States. The whole number of states in the Union is 36, and 27, or three-fourths of the whole, have ratified the constitutional amendment. A resolution of the Senate, last February, submitted to the Legislatures of the several states a proposition, that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, shall exist within the United States. Ratified by three-fourth of the legislatures, the proposition is incorporated in the American constitution. Mr. SEWARD officially announces the great fact that slavery has passed away, and no bondman now constitutionally exists in the broad territory of the Union. The struggle, which has closed so gloriously for the friends of freedom, and after one of the most tremendous wars recorded in history, dates almost from the Declaration of American Independence. The Abolition party did not rise until long after, though at the close of the last century a few illustrious men raised their voices against the evil whose growth they foresaw. It was not until about thirty-six years ago that the party to whom the great victory is due arose in Boston. They had to contend against a power which was bound up with the political interests of the country, and from which flowed the largest share of its wealth. They had faith in their principles, and, undaunted by the influence of the South in Congress, the Church, the Bar, and the Press, they persevered and finally triumphed. Up to Mr. LINCOLN’S election the slave states had for many years been masters of the Union. This is more remarkable, because their free inhabitants were a minority, trifling in comparison with those of the United States. In a country in which the universal suffrage of the whites was the sovereign power it might be supposed the slave states would always be outvoted. And so they would, but by an arrangement made in the original constitution, the votes of the whites in the slaves states weighed more than those in an equal number in the free states. The number of representatives being regulated by population, five slaves counted as three free men. Consequently, if in any state the free whites were 300,000 and the slaves 500,000, the votes of that State which would be exercised only by the whites would have the same weight as a state containing 600,000 whites – in other words, the power of each individual freeman would be double. The actual power of the South went much beyond this. The free states have always been divided between political parties, which in general had been pretty nearly balanced. This division into parties in the free States never prevailed in the South. The vote there was always decided by the slave interest. Voting together the Southern states have in times past been able to give a majority to whichever party in the North they determined to support. The result has been that the Government had almost always been in the hands either of Southern men, or of Northern men whose politics were subservient to the slave interest. Thus, though the free states immensely outweighed the South in population, in wealth, in commercial and industrial activity, and in domestic and foreign trade, in political power they were always inferior. So decided has been this inferiority that since 1791 there have eighteen Presidential elections and re-elections, of which twelve have returned slaveholders, and six only Northern men, and in almost every instance these Northern men owed their election to a Southern vote, and have been decided in their support of Southern interests. The whole foreign relations of the states had been habitually and systematically managed in the interest of slavery– witness the disgraceful conduct of the Federal Government towards Mexico and Spain. The systematic fraud and aggression by which Texas was annexed is one of the most flagitious pages of modern history. The single object of that great national crime was that the slave states might obtain possession of a district as large as France and England, one of the richest countries in the world, and admirably suited by soil and climate to negro labour. Slavery had been abolished throughout the whole Mexican territory. It had been re-introduced into Texas by the United States, and a prospective arrangement made by which it was to be divided into four slaves as soon as its population was sufficient. In proportion to the power which the slave interest enjoyed so long by means of the Union was the rage of the Southern politicians when they saw it passing out of their hands. For some years the Anti-slavery party had been gaining strength in the Northern states. Their influence was greatly promoted by the violence of the South. Northern men suspected of abolition sympathies were stripped, tarred and feathered, whipped, and even murdered in Southern cities, and no redress could be obtained. Fugitive slaves were forcibly seized and carried back to slavery. The law required all citizens to aid their capture, and cases occurred in which whole Northern cities had been thrown into mourning in seeing outrages committed in their own streets by authority of law. Above all, it was evident that so long as the Federal Government was subservient to the slaveholding interest, slavery, with all its crimes and pollutions, would be extended to new and hitherto uninhabited districts. The decision in the DRED SCOTT case opened up a new field of enterprise. It ruled that slaveowners had a right to take and keep slaves in any territory of the Union not yet formed into a state. And further, that this right could not be taken from them by any act of the Congress or President, nor by any compromise, even though agreed to by all the slave states. This decision changed the whole posture of affairs, and determined the fate of slavery. Mr. LINCOLN’S election sounded the knell, not of slavery, but of the political influence of the slaveholders over the general policy of the Union. We need not recapitulate events which are familiar to all. Slavery ended with the triumph of the Northern arms. Even if it produced no cruelty and no physical misery, it would still be an incalculable evil– a deadly poison, economical, social, moral– eating away the temporal and spiritual good both of the masters and slaves, and of the country with which it was cursed. It is now a thing of the past, and we heartily thank God for it. The South submits, it may sullenly, but in time the planters will be of a better temper and make a virtue of harsh necessity. Mr. SEWARD’s proclamation is regarded with some suspicion by the Radical Republicans. It involves, say they, an official recognition of the states lately in rebellion as states now in the Union. If the Southern States are out of the Union, as Mr. STEVENS and his party insist, and cannot return to it except by the action of Congress and President, they are in the positions of “territories,” and consequently their ratification of the constitutional amendment is of no value. The Radical are the more indignant with Mr. SEWARD because the voice of the states lately in rebellion were not necessary to the adoption of the amendment. The votes of the loyal states would have been sufficient, and, in time, would have been secured. The action of Mr. SEWARD is the action of the President. He has great influence with Congress and the country. If the South evince a disposition to accept the new order of things, the President will urge a lenient line of policy on Congress, and Congress will adopt it. It the report of CARL SCHURZ be true, the South pursues a wrong course. He represents the people as unwillingly loyal, and void of all national feeling and American sentiment, while the negro has been reduced to the condition of practical slavery. If the South continue in this mood, the Republicans will find a justification for the harshness they manifest in Congress, and the good wishes of the President will be frustrated. (2)
(1) Samito (ed.) 1998: xxvii; (2) Freeman’s Journal 4th January 1866;
Guiney, Patrick R. (edited by Christian G. Samito) 1998. Commanding Boston’s Irish Ninth: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Patrick R. Guiney Ninth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
The Freeman’s Journal. Dublin: Thursday, January 4, 1866. 4th January 1866.