James Ashley’s Thirteenth Amendment

 
By: Rebecca E. Zietlow

 

On January 31, 1865, the United States House of Representatives voted to approve the Thirteenth Amendment. Chairing the final debate over the Amendment was Representative James Ashley, a lifelong opponent of slavery from Northwest Ohio who led the fight for the Amendment’s approval in the House. Ashley and his antislavery colleagues believed that the Thirteenth Amendment not only ended slavery but also established fundamental human rights for freed slaves and other people in the United States. This Essay describes Ashley’s theory of the Thirteenth Amendment, a theory that addressed the intersectionality of racial and class-based oppression. Ashley viewed slavery as an institu- tion that relied on both racial and class subordination. Remedying the harms of slavery would require restoring a wide range of fundamental human rights that had been violated by that institution, to remedy the class- and race-based subordination that had made slavery possible and improve the status of all workers. As scholars engage in dialogue over the meaning of rights in the twenty-first century, the Thirteenth Amendment will play an important role. James Ashley’s vision of the Thirteenth Amendment is helpful not only for understanding its history, but also because it resonates in the twenty-first century and provides a useful model for rethinking equality rights.

 

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