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Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment

Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment

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Christian G. Samito


E-book (Other formats: Hardcover)
8 illustrations

Concise Lincoln Library


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About the Book

Long before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln recognized the challenge American slavery posed to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. A constitutional amendment would be the ideal solution to ending slavery, yet the idea of such an amendment conflicted with several of Lincoln’s long-held positions. In this study, Christian G. Samito examines how Lincoln’s opposition to amending the United States Constitution shaped his political views before he became president, and how constitutional arguments overcame Lincoln’s objections, turning him into a supporter of the Thirteenth Amendment by 1864.

For most of his political career, Samito shows, Lincoln opposed changing the Constitution, even to overturn Supreme Court rulings with which he disagreed. Well into his presidency, he argued that emancipation should take place only on the state level because the federal government had no jurisdiction to control slavery in the states. Between January 1863 and mid-1864, however, Lincoln came to support a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery because it worked within the constitutional structure and preserved key components of American constitutionalism in the face of Radical Republican schemes. Samito relates how Lincoln made the amendment an issue in his 1864 reelection campaign, chronicles lobbying efforts and the final vote in the House on the amendment resolution, and interrogates various charges of corruption and back-room deals. He also considers the Thirteenth Amendment in the context of the Hampton Roads conference, Lincoln’s own thoughts on the meaning of the amendment, and the impact of Lincoln’s assassination on the reading of the amendment. Samito provides the authoritative historical treatment of a story so compelling it was recently dramatized in the movie Lincoln.

Closing with a lively discussion that applies the Thirteenth Amendment to current events, this concise yet comprehensive volume demonstrates how the constitutional change Lincoln helped bring about continues to be relevant today.


Christian G. Samito practices law in Boston and teaches legal and constitutional history at Boston University School of Law. He is the author of Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era and the editor of Changes in Law and Society during the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Legal History Documentary Reader and two Civil War letter collections. He holds a JD from Harvard Law School and a PhD in American history from Boston College.


“With this book Samito gives us the fullest account we have of Lincoln’s gradual embrace of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Samito understands, as few others have, Lincoln’s longstanding commitment to state-by-state abolition and how it evolved into a more radical push for the constitutional destruction of slavery everywhere in the United States. It’s hard to believe that no such book has been published before!”—James Oakes, author of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States

“Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln opened everyone’s eyes to the great significance of the Thirteenth Amendment. Now Samito provides the backstory and analysis of Lincoln’s real role in the adoption of the amendment. He deftly weaves together two central strands of Civil War history: Lincoln’s presidential leadership and the Constitution’s transformation. Readers looking for an overview of the path of emancipation during the Civil War will be well served by this superb book.”—Michael Vorenberg, author of Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment

“Christian Samito has written a fine study that explains how Lincoln came to support the Thirteenth Amendment and the intricate maneuvers needed to obtain its approval by Congress and ratification by the states. This is an essential account of Lincoln’s developing views and his political strategy as he moved from opposing the spread of slavery to securing its complete abolition.”—George Rutherglen, John Barbee Minor Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia
“The Thirteenth Amendment is the ‘liberty amendment’ of the Constitution we most take for granted. In this book, Christian Samito tells the fascinating and largely forgotten story of how Abraham Lincoln’s thinking about slavery and the Constitution gradually evolved to converge with the views of more radical Republicans. In this way, Lincoln’s evolution tracked that of the nation he led. Those who were intrigued by Spielberg’s film Lincoln will want to read what really happened.”—Randy E. Barnett, author of Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty

Samito's careful attention to the 13th Amendment is a fitting celebration of the first in the great trilogy of constitutional amendments that have and continue to redefine the nature of our democracy. . . .Samito investigates the role of the 13th Amendment in reshaping the landscape of constitutional law. . . Samito goes beyond the obvious end of slavery to consider that this amendment, for the first time, granted the federal government authority to use positive law to protect freedom.'-Barbara Berenson, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly  

Christian Samito brings a critical yet sympathetic perspective to his subject. Medford and Samito are top-notch scholars who possess a mastery of their subjects and the all-to-rare ability to make complex historical
events and ideas clear and readily understandable."—Brian R. Dirck, The Annals of Iowa