“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” declared President Abraham Lincoln in a letter in 1864.
Lincoln had played a delicate balancing act over the issue in the midst of the Civil War before pushing for a constitutional amendment that year. Slavery had already ceased to exist as a legal institution in Arkansas with the ratification of the 1864 state constitution. And with a constitutional amendment passing Congress, the former slave state would play a part in finishing off slavery once and for all.
In Washington, DC, the proposed constitutional amendment was crafted by Congressman James Mitchell Ashley, an Ohio newspaper editor and abolitionist. Even with the Civil War nearing an end and pro-slavery forces decimated politically, there was still resistance to a constitutional amendment. It passed the Senate by a vote of 38-6 in April 1864. After months of wrangling, arguments, and deal-making, the amendment passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 119-56 on January 31, 1865. Though Arkansas had a functioning Union government by that time, it was not allowed to seat a congressional delegation.
Under the Constitution, a proposed amendment has to pass both houses of Congress with a two-thirds majority and then be ratified by three-quarters of the states. In 1865, that required 27 of the 36 existing states. Amending the Constitution is often a slow, cumbersome process; and only a handful proposed have ever been ratified. As of 1865, an amendment had not been ratified in 60 years. In the modern age, only 17 amendments have been ratified since the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791.
Approval in the states started rapidly. Within a week of its passage by Congress, eleven states had ratified the amendment. By the end of February, 18 states had ratified, including the Unionist governments in Virginia and Louisiana.
At the beginning of 1865, the Civil War had ended with a whimper in Arkansas. The Confederate army and the state Confederate government had both collapsed by early 1865. Unable to find anyone willing to negotiate with him or even acknowledge him, Confederate Gov. Harris Flanagin dissolved the Confederate government in the state by sending all Confederate government records by wagon to Little Rock, signaling the end of all remaining claims.
With the federal amendment circulating among the states, Arkansas Gov. Isaac Murphy, long am outspoken Unionist, called for a special session of the state legislature to ratify the amendment on February 16. The session was scheduled to begin on April 3. When the session opened, however, it was still several more days before a quorum was reached.
In the meantime, the disintegration of what remained of the Confederacy accelerated. Union forces broke through Confederate lines at Richmond, Virginia, taking the Confederate capital on April 2. The Confederate government was on the run, a government now leading no one. On April 9, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces at Appomattox Courthouse, leaving only a handful of scattered units and resistance across the South. Upon hearing the news of Lee’s surrender by telegraph, Rep. Jesse Shortis of Benton County, called for a resolution the next day thanking Union forces for their work and marking “the beginning of the end” of the war and “a speedy restoration of the Union.”
On April 12, Gov. Murphy’s message to the legislature calling for ratification was read. The legislature voted to move a discussion and vote to April 14. Murphy called ratification of the amendment abolishing slavery “the great act that will consolidate the Union of the States on the basis of equality, politically and socially; remove the cause of our troubles and bind together all the States in a Union of interest and affection …” Reps. L. M. Harris of Van Buren County and J. H. Demby of Montgomery County announced they would be sponsoring a joint resolution in favor of ratification.
After years of arguments, debates, and finally, warfare, the end was never in doubt in those final moments. On April 13, the State Senate voted unanimously to ratify the amendment. The House of Representatives followed on the next day, Good Friday, with all representatives voting to ratify the amendment.
The ratification of the abolition amendment was the last act of the Arkansas legislature under Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan. Later that night, Lincoln was shot and mortally wounded at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. He died the next morning, a passing that was met with great mourning by legislators.
Arkansas was the fourth former Confederate state to vote to ratify the amendment. Arkansas even managed to ratify the amendment ahead of long-standing free Union states as Iowa, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.
Six more states were needed for ratification after Arkansas. By the time the amendment was ratified on December 6, only the states of Kentucky and Delaware still practiced slavery. Between the two states, perhaps less than 100,000 people remained in bondage, now freed. At the beginning of the Civil War just four years earlier, more than 4 million people were enslaved in the United States. The amendment put a formal end to a bitter chapter in the nation’s history.