Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lincoln vs. the Primary Source Evidence

Historians and bloggers have written a lot over the past week regarding Lincoln. Quite a bit has centered on the historical accuracy of the film, and for the most part I've seen positive responses.

Personally, I judge the success of a historical movie by its ability to encourage viewers to learn more about its subject. In this sense, Lincoln succeeded for me. I have not to this point read much about the passage of the 13th Amendment, but I found myself digging around on the internet the last few days. I thought I would continue to take a look at some of the history behind the film here on Backstories. The film portrays several floor debates in the House of Representatives, which provides us with a great opportunity to compare fact and fiction. The Library of Congress website, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, features the Congressional Globe, where you can find the debates of the 38th Congress on the passage of the 13th Amendment.

Today I have been looking into one of the interesting side plots of the movie - the story of Congressman Alexander Hamilton Coffroth. In the movie, Coffroth (played by Boris McGiver) initially states his opposition to the amendment. Involved in a contested election in his home district, the administration arranges for Coffroth to visit Thaddeus Stevens, who essentially tells the Democratic congressman that he will vote for the amendment as a Democrat, and that his reelection bid will be taken care of somehow. Stevens then explains to Coffroth that, at the appropriate time in the new congress, Coffroth will announce that he has switched to the Republican Party.

I wondered how much truth this story contained, and I went in search of some evidence. First, I went to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, where I learned that Coffroth was indeed involved in a contested election in 1864. I also learned that Coffroth was seated in the 39th Congress on February 19, 1866, and served until July 18, 1866, when he was succeeded by William H. Koontz, who had contested the election. So the story has some semblance of truth about it. It appears however that Coffroth never switched parties, and certainly never intended to.

What then, of Coffroth's position on the amendment? For that, we can go to the primary sources.

On June 14, 1864, Congressman Coffroth rose to explain his initial stance on the amendment. He would vote against it:
 The mere abolition of slavery is not my cause of complaint. I care not whether slavery is retained or abolished by the people of the States in which it exists--the only rightful authority. The question to me is, has Congress a right to take from the people of the South their property--or, in other words, having no pecuniary interest therein, are we justified in freeing the slave property of others?

He continued, explaining that he did not deny the right of Congress to amend the Constitution, but rather, "I do deny the right of Congress to amend the Constitution to the destruction of the right of the people to hold property." Coffroth closed:
The liberty of speech, the freedom of the ballot-box, and the inalienable rights of the citizens are worth preserving. If defending them on this floor makes this side of the House, in the opinion of the gentlemen on the other side, sympathizers with the rebellion, we know we do our duty, and that unborn generations will rise to bless the memory of the men who have preserved for them the rights and privileges of their fathers.

On January 31, 1865 - the day of the second vote - Coffroth rose again to address the House, and to explain his change of heart.  This time, he argued that this action by Congress was not as drastic as some of his Democratic colleagues had made it out to be - pointing out that Congress had no power to amend the Constitution, but rather to recommend amending the document to the people.
The members of this House assume no responsibility, they enact no amendment, but as faithful Representatives they submit to the people, the source from whence their power comes, the proposed amendment. 'Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.' All political power is invested in the people. At their will constitutions can be remodeled and laws repealed.
Coffroth also explained that his opposition in June stemmed from his sympathy for the loyal slave states, noting that the amendment would take away the slave property of loyal citizens. Since that time, Maryland and Missouri had abolished slavery, and Kentucky's governor had advocated for gradual emancipation, thus removing one of his primary sticking points. He also justified his vote by asserting his desire for peace, and his belief that removing the slave question for all time would perhaps hasten peace. Finally, understanding that his vote would make him an unpopular man within his own caucus, Coffroth defended his Democratic credentials firmly:
Mr. Speaker, I desire above all things that the Democratic party be again placed in power. The condition of the country needs the wise counsel of the Democracy. The peace and prosperity of this once powerful and happy nation require it to be placed under Democratic rule. The history of the past demonstrates this. The question of slavery has been a fruitful theme for the opponents of the Democracy. It has breathed into existence fanaticism, and feeds it with such meat as to make it ponderous in growth. It must soon be strangled or the nation is lost. I propose to do this by removing from the political arena that which has given it life and strength. As soon as that is done fanaticism 'Writhes with pain, and dies among its worshipers.' Then the rays of truth will be unshaded, and once more our people will rejoice in the salvation of their country, and of the reinstating in power of that party which made this country great, and which has done so much to secure to man civil and religious liberty.

Many of the honorable gentlemen of this House with whom I am politically associated may condemn me for my action to-day. I assure them I do that only which my conscience sanctions and my sense of duty to my country demands. I have been a Democrat all the days of my life. I learned my Democracy from that being who gave me birth; it was pure; it came from one who never told me an untruth. All my political life has been spent in defending and supporting the measures which I thought were for the good of the party and the country. My energy, my means, and my time were all given for the success of the Democratic cause. I am no Democrat by mere profession, but I have always been a working one. If by my action to-day I dig my political grave, I will descend into it without a murmur, knowing that I am justified in my action by a conscientious belief that I am doing what will ultimately prove to be a service to my country, and knowing there is one dear, devoted, and loving being in this wide world who will not bring tears of bitterness to that grave, but will strew it with beautiful flowers, for it returns me to that domestic circle from whence I have been taken for the greater part of the last two years.

One wonders about the inner-workings of the contested election that saw Coffroth seated in February, 1866 but then unseated in July. However - one need only read his words to discover that this is not a man who would switch to the Republican Party. Taken on the whole though, the film does a nice job portraying this Congressman and the difficult situation he found himself in in January, 1865.

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