Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Portsmouth Legacy: James Ashley, Lincoln's Conscience

 James Mitchell Ashley

Would it surprise you to know that President Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist when the Civil War broke out in 1881? He wanted desperately to preserve the Union. Although he personally found the practice of slavery abhorrent, he knew that neither Northerners nor the residents of the border slave states would support abolition as a war aim. The idea of granting freedom to nearly 4 million slaves in America was not his political concern.

Lincoln wrote in a famous letter to Horace Greeley on August 1862 ...

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
Even in his first inaugural address, Lincoln declared that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists.”

So, how did the Thirteenth Amendment that formally abolished slavery in the United States come about? Who led the cause, and what pressures caused President Lincoln to act? The story may surprise you. Although somehow lost in the annals of history, the person most notably credited with applying direct action in the right places was an abolitionist with a Portsmouth, Ohio connection.

Prior to the Thirteenth Amendment, the United States Constitution did not expressly use the words slave or slavery but included several provisions about unfree persons. Since the American Revolution, states had divided into states that allowed and states that prohibited slavery.

Slavery was implicitly permitted in the original Constitution through provisions such as Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, commonly known as the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which detailed how each slave state's enslaved population would be factored into its total population count for the purposes of apportioning seats in the United States House of Representatives and direct taxes among the states.

For purposes of the Fifth Amendment, which was ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights – “no person shall… be deprived of… property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” – slaves were understood as property. They or their descendants could be sold or inherited like any other personalty. Like other property, human chattel was governed largely by laws of individual states. The Fifth Amendment rights of due process in the pursuit of life and liberty did not apply to slaves.

President Lincoln’s position on “Union above all” did pivot as the war progressed. It did so largely for a very utilitarian reason. By the fall of 1862, he had begun to believe that freeing the slaves could aid in his ultimate goal of reuniting the states as he saw the military benefit provided by the thousands of slaves who had fled their owners and joined the Union forces fighting behind enemy lines. After all, the Confederacy was using slaves as trench builders, teamsters, cooks, and in many other ways to help their cause. Lincoln was convinced that abolition had become a sound military strategy, as well as the morally correct path.

Foremost, Lincoln wanted to change the tide of the war. It was going badly for the Union. After the Northern armies had won a string of military victories in the early months of 1862, they suffered demoralizing reverses in July and August. He saw that emancipation would weaken the Confederacy and strengthen the Union by siphoning off part of the Southern labor force and adding this manpower to the Northern side.

Also, most Republicans had become convinced by 1862 that the war against a slaveholders’ rebellion must become a war against slavery itself, and they put increasing pressure on Lincoln to proclaim an emancipation policy. By the summer of 1862, it was clear that he risked alienating the Republican half of his constituency if he did not act against slavery.

Yet, even when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all slaves in areas still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” the mandate did not apply to border states or slave-holding territory already seized by the North.

It should be understood the proclamation only freed slaves; it did not abolish slavery itself. It pronounced freedom for all slaves in the Confederacy – states over which Lincoln had no control. Still, the symbolic directive had the effect of highlighting the centrality of slavery to the Union cause.

As historian Eric Foner writes, “never before had so large a number of slaves been declared free. By making the army an agent of emancipation and wedding the goals of Union and abolition, it ensured that northern victory would produce a social transformation in the South and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American life.”

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. It was much more symbolic than practical.

Some historians believe issuing the proclamation gave Lincoln great benefit from a position of strength, rather than one of desperation. And, by shifting the Civil War’s main purpose from preserving the Union to universal liberty, Lincoln was hurling a moral challenge in the face of the British and French at a time when they were considering recognition of the Confederate government. In essence, it said, “You both abolished slavery – are you really going to recognize a nation built on that institution now, just to have access to the cotton grown by their slaves?” Britain and France balked.

A major concern was that the proclamation was executed by a president exercising greatly expanded wartime powers, and the president and his supporters were concerned that courts might rule it a temporary emergency measure invalid once the war concluded. Lincoln had preferred to see abolition codified on the state level, and by early 1864 several states had enacted laws prohibiting slavery.

Radical Republicans were opposed during the Civil War by the Moderate Republicans (led by Lincoln), by the conservative Republicans, and by the largely pro-slavery and later by anti-Reconstruction Democratic Party, as well as by conservatives in the South and liberals in the North during Reconstruction. The abolitionist group tried to convince the president that slavery would only be outlawed with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. One of them was James Mitchell Ashley – the man with connections to Portsmouth, Ohio.


Born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, James Ashley moved with his parents and siblings to Portsmouth in the spring of 1826 at the age of two and grew to manhood here. His father, John Clinton Ashley was a minister in the Disciples (Campbellite) Church and served as a Justice of Peace and Township Trustee, providing the young Ashley a model of public service.

Still, Ashley and his father had a tense relationship. His father wanted him to follow family tradition and become a Baptist minister. Ashley did not want to do so. Therefore, Ashley grew very close to his mother, and he learned many things, both intellectually and morally, from her. She had many abolitionist friends, and this learning is said to have molded him into becoming a strong abolitionist. \

The young boy witnessed white men who refused to let their cattle drink from a stream in which his father had baptized slaves. Ashley grew to hate the "peculiar institution" (which he considered a violation of Christian principles) and the oligarchy that supported it.

When James Ashley was 14 years old, rather than attend a seminary, he ran away to become a cabin boy on Ohio and Mississippi River boats, and later he worked as a clerk on those boats. Ashley did not speak or write to his father again until he was twenty-one, but wrote often to his mother.

Nelson Evans, in his History of Scioto County account of the young Ashley, notes that it was “during his life on the river that he saw much that horrified him with the slave system. He saw coffles of chained slaves being walked to the Deep South, boys his own age being sold. In later years Ashley used to relate how free Negroes employed to work on the same steamer with him would be kidnapped.”

He recalled: “At landing places where the steamer would stop to take on freight, they (Negroes) would go ashore to help with the work, and would be arrested on the charge of being runaway slaves, and being unable, without money or friends, to make a defense, and no owner appearing, would finally be sold to pay the expenses of apprehending them.”

James Ashley began to help fugitives. Reports confirm that Ashley began helping slaves to escape as early as 1839. According to W. H. Siebert, a pioneering historian of the Underground Railroad, James Ashley began his active participation in the movement in 1841, at the age of seventeen, when he assisted two groups of slaves across the Ohio (one a group of seven and another of five), transferring them by a small boat from near Greenup, Kentucky, to two operators that lived below Portsmouth, on the West Side.

Late in his life Ashley relished telling stories of the families he had saved. Ashley explained in an interview when he was 70 years old: “The five was the most exciting time I ever had. From the group of seven, all of them got away.”

Ashley worked the river for several years, then he returned home to Portsmouuth and educated himself in the printing industry. By 1842, Ashley had begun working for various newspapers, particularly the Scioto Valley Republican. And, in 1848, he became editor and part owner of the Portsmouth (Ohio) Democrat in 1848 – the first Democratic party-aligned newspaper in Portsmouth. Ashley and the other owner would soon sell the paper to Francis Cleveland, who continued the enterprise.

Ashley then studied law with Charles O. Tracy, and he was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1849. However, he chose not to practice law. Instead, he ran for mayor in 1851.

Evans noted that Ashley lost the election because he split the Democratic vote with Judge William Oldfield. This loss discouraged young Ashley with Portsmouth.

Evans record also relates that Ashley realized his secret and illegal underground railroad activities had become common knowledge when “he met a Quaker whom he knew had “anti-slavery sentiments” on the street who said to him, “James, I think thee needs this,’ at the same time handing him $20.00.” 

In 1851, he was married to Miss Emma Smith of Kentucky. That same year he and Emma decided to leave Portsmouth. They moved to Toledo, Ohio, to avoid prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. There, he opened a drug store. He sold his portion of the business in 1858 in order to focus on politics. James and Emma had four children.

Ashley decided to relaunch his political career in northwest Ohio, where he abandoned the Democratic Party and helped establish the new Republican Party. Soon, James Ashley became an active abolitionist. He even traveled with John Brown's widow to Brown's execution in December, 1859, and reported on the event in the still-extant local newspaper, the Toledo Blade.

Ashley said of Charles Town (Charlestown, now in West Virginia):

“It is enough to say, that any anti-slavery man would have been safer from personal injury and insult in...countries whose language he could not speak, a stranger without a passport...than in the town of Charlestown, in my own country, for the past few days.”

The way Ashley got into the city without arrest or confrontation was to get an old horse and rickety buggy and quietly drive into town. Ashley even spoke to Mrs. Brown who was present to fetch her husband’s body. Mrs. Brown had brought a few friends with her for support, but she was made to leave them behind when she spoke with her husband. Ashley reported that she was treated terribly, even made to strip to be certain she had no poisons or weapons upon her person to relay to her husband.

Ashley was very sorry for what she went through, “A poor, broken hearted woman, with two gentlemen and a Quaker lady friend, harmless and unarmed...” Many people still ask why Harper’s Ferry was such an excitement to slaveholders, and Ashley said that “It is inseparable from the system of slavery.” Of Brown’s execution, he had somewhat torn feelings. To quote him,“However much I condemn and lament, as I most since rely do, his attack on this place, I cannot but admire his heroism, his straight-forward independence, and his undoubted courage.”

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Brown wrote:
I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
Brown read his Bible and wrote a final letter to his wife, which included his will. At 11:00 a.m. he was escorted from the county jail through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers a few blocks away to a small field where the gallows were. Among the soldiers in the crowd were future Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth (the latter borrowing a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution).

Brown was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants, but no minister since he had consistently rejected the ministrations of pro-slavery clergy. Since the region was in the grips of virtual hysteria, most northerners, including journalists, were run out of town, and it is unlikely any anti-slavery clergyman would have been safe, even if one were to have sought to visit Brown.

Brown elected to receive no religious services in the jail or at the scaffold. He was hanged at 11:15 a.m. and pronounced dead at 11:50 a.m. His body was placed in a wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck. His coffin was then put on a train to take it away from Virginia to his family homestead in New York for burial. In the North, large memorial meetings took place, church bells rang, minute guns were fired, and famous writers such as Emerson and Thoreau joined many Northerners in praising Brown.

French poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo had tried to obtain a pardon for John Brown. This text, written at Hauteville-House on December 2, 1859, warned of a possible civil war:
Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it. Brown's agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you kill your glory. Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself.
Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”
While in Toledo, Ashley was active in local politics and served as chairman of the Ohio Republican Party in 1858. A year later, in 1859, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in the 36th Congress. During his tenure, Ashley was one of the abolitionist movement’s leaders. His service to Congress spanned the entire Civil War and part of the Reconstruction Era.

According to biographer Robert F. Horowitz, Ashley "maintained that under the war powers clause of the Constitution, the government had the right to interfere with slavery in the states and to initiate complete abolition, and that the power should be used against the oligarchic slaveholders. He firmly believed that his views would eventually be accepted by the administration and the American people." Such strong support led to the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1860, Ashley campaigned for Republican presidential nominee Abraham Lincoln. During the secession crisis in the winter of 1860-1861, Ashley opposed compromising with the slave-holding South. As chairman of the House Committee on Territories, Ashley formulated a radical plan for Reconstruction in December 1861. It would have abolished slavery, established territorial governments in the seceded states, redistributed confiscated land to former slaves and Southern white Unionists, and granted black men the right to vote.

Ashley was also instrumental in the drafting and passage of the law abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia in April 1862.

In December 1863, Ashley introduced a bill proposing a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in the entire United States. Modeled after the wording of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Ashley's motion was the foundation for what would become the Thirteenth Amendment.

When President Lincoln presented his much milder Reconstruction plan, Ashley unsuccessfully attempted to add a provision for black voting rights. Also in his second term, the congressman was accused of illegal land speculation and misuse of his office to secure jobs for relatives. A special congressional committee acquitted him in 1863.

By the summer of 1864 Lincoln’s position on the 13th Amendment had continued to evolve. At his party’s convention, he pushed for a Republican platform that called for slavery’s “utter and complete extirpation,” and in accepting the nomination, he for the first time called for a federal amendment banning slavery as “a fitting, and necessary conclusion” to the war.

Emboldened by the 1864 election that not only returned him to the White House but increased his party’s seats in Congress, Lincoln threw himself behind the effort to pass the amendment. In his annual message to legislators in December 1864, Lincoln made clear that he had no intention of waiting for the inauguration of the new Congress in March. “The next Congress will pass the measure if this does not,” he wrote. “May we not agree that the sooner the better?”

As the 2012 Steven Spielberg biopic “Lincoln” portrayed, the president and Secretary of State William Seward were willing to strong-arm border Unionists and horse-trade with reluctant Democrats to secure their votes or at least their abstentions in order to lower the threshold for a two-thirds majority. The administration took advantage of the timing of the lame-duck Congress by offering patronage jobs – and in one case an ambassadorship to Denmark – to defeated Democrats.

As floor manager of the Republican majority, James Ashley then steered the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives until its passage in January 1865 by 2 votes. The constitutionally required three-quarters of the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment and it became part of the U.S. Constitution on December 6, 1865, eight months after the end of the Civil War.

The chamber grew silent as House of Representatives Speaker Schuyler Colfax declared the results of the historic vote with a quiver in his voice: “On the passage of the joint resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States, the ayes have 119, the noes 56.” The measure passed by the narrowest of margins, with eight members abstaining. Sixteen Democrats, all but two lame ducks, joined the full slate of Republicans in approving the measure.

It was reported that following a short heartbeat of silence, the chamber erupted in celebration. Parliamentary rules were cast aside as congressmen cheered wildly and “wept like children.” Then came the thunder of a 100-gun salute outside the Capitol Building to relay the news of the vote to the rest of the city. Ashley quickly telegraphed the Toledo Commercial, "Glory to God in the highest! Our country is free."

Although it wasn’t legally necessary, Lincoln affixed his signature to the engrossed copy of the amendment the following day. That night, a jubilant crowd led by a brass band gathered by torchlight outside the White House and raised a great cheer when Lincoln appeared in a central upper window of the portico. The president leaned outside and told his supporters that slavery had caused the Civil War and must be expunged so that it would never tear apart the country again. “This amendment is a king’s cure for all the evils,” he said. “It winds the whole thing up.” Before he left, Lincoln congratulated the country “upon this great moral victory.” One must wonder what he said to Congressman Ashley.


James Mitchell Ashley is forever known as the Radical Republican who introduced the first bill which ultimately became the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. He was good friends with President Lincoln, yet Ashley views on slavery were deep-seated and more extreme – breaking away from any compromise that deprived humans of equality and absolute freedom. Without such pressure on the President and Congress, the necessary transformation would likely not have occurred. A radical group led by a radical man had served the nation.

Ashley wasn't finished with his important work. He also became a leading advocate of the enfranchisement of black men, which was established by the First Reconstruction Act of 1867 and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870). Three years before his death, his efforts on behalf of racial equality were recognized by the Afro-American League of Tennessee, and he donated the proceeds of a book of his speeches to build schools.

With his health declining, Ashley developed a bad case of diabetes and it eventually cost him his life. In September of 1896,Ashley took a fishing trip up north. While fishing, he neglected to watch his diet and his health. On September 16th, Ashley suffered a fatal heart attack and died. He is buried in Toledo, Ohio.

While honoring James M. Ashley, William H. Young, the president of the Afro-American League of Tennessee said of Ashley …

“We come to snatch from the consummate statesman, patriot, philanthropist and benefactor, the chill and gloom of ingratitude and to reinvest his being with new life. We come to reassure him that the years of strife, turmoil, and self-abnegation spent for a despised race were ‘as bread upon the water.’

"We come to remind him that we tonight intend that his name and life-work shall be a precious legacy to our children’s children. That they shall rise up and call him blessed. We have come to announce to the world that henceforth, he who shall merit our gratitude shall not go unrewarded.”

With supreme conviction, Ashley fought for his beliefs. He fought for minority rights in a time when minorities had nothing. He pushed the people of his time to abolish slavery and to do away with segregation not only in his state, but also in the entire country. His name should forever be remembered as the person most responsible for the conviction and execution of these words: “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.” No Founding Father did more for equality in America than James Mitchell Ashley.


Jean Allain. The Legal Understanding of Slavery: From the Historical to the Contemporary. 2012.

“James Ashley.” Ohio History Central.

Evan Carton. Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America. 2006. 

“Emancipation Proclamation.” History Channel.

Andrew Feight, Ph.D. “James Ashley & the Thirteenth Amendment.”

Raelin Ingram. “The Life and Times of James. M. Ashley.” Washington Senior Research History Class.

Christopher Klein. “Congress Passes 13th Amendment, 150 Years Ago.” History Channel. January 30, 2015.

Abigail Perkiss. “Abraham Lincoln as constitutional radical: The 13th amendment.” Constitution Daily. July 12, 2013.

David Potter. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. 2011.

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