In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln saw his home state of Illinois become the first to ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery. He’d also live to see the end of the Civil War, in which he had declared slaves in Southern states, free under the Emancipation Proclamation, issued two years earlier, but he wouldn’t live to see the amendment itself become law, upon the vote of Georgia state lawmakers on Dec. 9, 1865.
In Emancipation Hall, at the Capitol visitor center in Washington, President Barack Obama, joined by members of Congress Wednesday, celebrated the 150th anniversary of the amendment’s ratification.
In his comments, the president tied the amendment’s guarantee of freedom to current events saying Americans “betray the efforts of the past if we fail to push back against bigotry in all its forms.” In what many saw as a veiled reference to recent comments by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Obama continued by calling on Americans "to remember that our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others, regardless of where they come from, or what they look like, or what their last name is, or what faith they practice.” The line drew loud applause, particularly from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who hosted the day’s event.
The celebration featured music by an Army band, singing and historic readings by members of the House and Senate.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., gave one of the first readings. He talked about how Southern states, skeptical of Lincoln’s motives on the issue of slavery, had threatened to leave the Union were Lincoln to be elected president in 1860.
After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing slaves in Southern states, it took months for word to spread. Slaves in Texas didn’t hear until June 19th. The date has since been celebrated as “Juneteenth.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, grew up in Texas, celebrating Juneteenth with his grandfathers. He said, they “never would have believed that an African American (president), would be standing up, talking about the 13th Amendment, in the United States Capitol, with their grandson sitting in the audience as a member of Congress.”
His eyes welled up, his voice choked slightly and he added, “I don’t know how Heaven works, but I hope they had a chance to see this today…”
Lincoln’s push for the 13th Amendment followed his concern that the legal authority used in the Emancipation Proclamation might not extend beyond the end of the war.
Durbin explained that it was a matter of “local pride” for lawmakers in Springfield, to move quickly to be the first state to ratify the Amendment after it passed the U.S. House on Jan. 31, 1865.
“Immediately after the amendment passed … Sen. Lyman Trumbull telegraphed Gov. Richard J. Oglesby … urging him to ensure that President Lincoln’s home state was the first to ratify the historic proposal. The next day at noon, Gov. Oglesby forwarded the news to the state legislature, along with his directive that the Thirteenth Amendment ‘is just, it is humane’ and should be approved ‘now,’” Durbin continued. “By 4:30 on the afternoon of Feb. 1, both state chambers had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in large majorities.”
The day’s events were especially important to members of the Congressional Black Caucus. After the ceremony ended, a large group of women lawmakers from the Congressional Black Caucus, along with others, posed for a group photo in front of a bust of Sojourner Truth, now on display in Emancipation Hall.