While researching Stanton yesterday at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I came across several letters that illuminate the history of the Thirteenth Amendment. Everyone “knows” this story now: we have seen it in great detail in the movie version of Lincoln. But one of the joys of research is that new details are always emerging, often in places where you would least expect to find them.
I was reading through the papers of George Bancroft, historian, statesman, Democrat. Just before the House of Representatives voted on the constitutional amendment, Bancroft sent letters to two wavering Democratic members of the House: Samuel “Sunset” Cox of Ohio and John Pruyn of New York. Bancroft reminded Cox of the work they had done together, in years past, and urged him not to be on the wrong side of history. “Do not, my friend, let your name be registered as one who defeats this measure. It will stand out to all time: & your children, & your friends, & your political supporters, & you yourself will regret it, almost as soon as your vote should be recorded.”
With Pruyn, Bancroft stressed the benefits to the Democratic Party, using the word “democracy” as shorthand for the Democratic Party. “The slavery question can now, all the teachings of history confirm what I say, be terminated only by doing away with slavery itself. Once quit of that load, the triumph of democracy is certain. Stand in the way of the removal of that evil, & democracy stands in opposition to itself and must be defeated. If the amendment is defeated now by democratic votes, it becomes a question in which the country will divide, until the amendment is carried. So for the sake of internal peace, justice, the success of the democratic party, pass the amendment.”
Neither Cox nor Pruyn voted for the amendment. Pruyn responded to Bancroft, explaining that he voted against the amendment because he believed that the Constitution did not allow for such a constitutional amendment. Pruyn explained that, on most questions, he was prepared to vote as his constituents wanted him to vote, but on this he had to vote as he believed he was required by the Constitution. Cox did not write Bancroft, but another friend, Samuel Hooper, member of the House from Massachusetts, wrote Bancroft after the vote. “Mr. Cox was greatly moved on the constitutional amendment and I am told went to bed after 2 o’clock on the night before determined to vote for it, but failed to do it. From his appearance while the vote was being taken I thought he was undecided to the last moment, but if his vote had been necessary to carry it I think he would have voted in favor of it.”
The image of Cox, exhausted and uncertain, deciding how to vote at the last minute, is in its way more moving than the drama of the Lincoln movie.