“I suppose I am politically ruined. . . .”
U.S. Representative Joe Coutrtney (D-Connecticut) is very unhappy that Spielberg’s film depicts one of his state’s House delegation as voting against the 13th Amendment. All four House members from that state voted in favor of the measure, so he’s right on the facts. But his argument is silly:
We need to get beyond visions of the past based on what seems obvious or logical or rational in hindsight, and take time to look at what people actually did and and said at the time, which often turns out to be irrational, illogical, self-defeating, and completely out of touch with modern values. In fact, almost five dozen members of the House of Representatives, every one from a Union state, voted “on the wrong side of history” that day. Connecticut was hardly a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment, either; it had hung on to the institution until 1848, and there was great apprehension there about the impact universal emancipation would have on white labor in the state’s cotton mills. These are aspects of Connecticut’s history in the 19th century that Rep. Courtney may not know, but they were very real parts of the political landscape in 1865.
Courtney would have done better to tell the story of Rep. James E. English (right, 1812-90), the lame-duck Democrat who had voted against the measure when it first came up the previous year, but went to rather extraordinary lengths to help pass it when it came up for a vote again in January 1865:In 1863 President Lincoln, by virtue of his authority as Commander-in-Chief, issued his Emancipation Proclamation. This was a military measure, and the general question of slavery had still to be met by legislative action. Mr. English had voted for the bill abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, and he had told the President and others that he would vote for a constitutional amendment which should forever put an end to slavery in the United States. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in May, 1864, by Mr. Ashley, of Ohio ; but even the Republicans were not yet united on the measure, and it was defeated — Mr. English, by the advice of Mr. Ashley himself, voting against it. But in February, 1865 [sic.], the Amendment was again proposed. The Thirty-eighth Congress was shortly to expire, and, although the next House would be strongly Republican, President Lincoln was deeply anxious to have the measure passed during this session. Mr. English had been recalled to New Haven by the serious illness of his wife, and he was in attendance upon her sick-bed when word was sent him from Washington that the Thirteenth Amendment was to come up on the following day. He set out at once for Washington, arriving in time to hear the final speeches of the debate, and to vote with the ten Democrats who helped to carry the bill by the required two-thirds vote. “Well, English,” Mr. S. S. Cox, of New York, said to him when they met, “I am afraid that I cannot vote for the Amendment.” “Ah,” said Mr. English. “Well, I intend to vote for it.” When the count was called and his emphatic ” Yes ” rang forth, applause sounded throughout the House. The announcement that the Amendment had been passed by a vote of 119 to 56 was received by the members on the floor and the visitors in the galleries with an outburst of enthusiasm rarely witnessed in the Capitol. Republicans sprang from their seats, and, regardless of parliamentary rules or the Speaker’s efforts to enforce silence, cheered and applauded. The men in the galleries joined in the uproar, while ladies clapped their hands, waved their handkerchiefs, and uttered exclamations of delight and enthusiasm. Mr. English remarked to a New Haven friend, while talking over this experience, ” I suppose I am politically ruined, but that day was the happiest of my life.”
That’s one helluva story, right there. And English was not politically ruined; he went on to serve two terms as the Governor of Connecticut, and served briefly in the U.S. Senate as an interim appointment in 1875-76.
As many folks have pointed out, much of the criticism of Spielberg’s film from historians has amounted to the latter whinging that he and Tony Kushner didn’t make the movie they themselves would have made. Fine, whatever. Rep. Courtney’s criticism is much more valid, even if it’s motivated as much by home-state boosterism as it is by an interest in historical accuracy. Spielberg and Kushner could have — should have — avoided this business altogether by simply depicting the “nay” votes in the House as they really were, explicitly by name, without worrying about what their great-great-great-grandkids might think.