Saturday, January 5, 2013

The end of slavery: How New Hampshire voted

After seeing the movie Lincoln, I wondered about the votes of New Hampshire’s congressmen on the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. The debate on the amendment drives the movie’s plot.

The chapter in Our War on the 1863 election focuses on the governor’s race in New Hampshire. That year, voters also elected representatives from three congressional districts (as opposed to two today). It elected two Republicans and a Copperhead (antiwar Democrat) to the House, and these three were still in office when the Thirteenth Amendment came to a vote on Jan. 31, 1865.

Rep. James W. Patterson[
The Senate had already passed the amendment. New Hampshire’s senators were both Republicans – John P. Hale, the abolitionist from Dover whose statue now stands in the State House yard, and Daniel Clark, a Dartmouth-educated Manchester lawyer who had been in the U.S. Senate since 1857. Clark was the Senate’s president pro tem. He and Hale both supported the amendment.

The congressmen called to vote on it were Edward H. Rollins, whose drugstore was a Republican hotspot in Concord until he was elected to the House; James W. Patterson, a Henniker native who was a math professor at Dartmouth College before winning his seat on his third try in 1863; and Daniel Marcy, the Copperhead, a self-made man and shipbuilder from Portsmouth.

There was no suspense about the votes of Rollins and Patterson, reliable antislavery men. Patterson’s brief appearance in Our War makes his position clear. In 1863 he wrote to Samuel A. Duncan, whom he had known as a scholar and tutor at Dartmouth, to cheer on Duncan’s decision to leave the 14th New Hampshire regiment to serve at the head of a black regiment.

“This war must settle the humanity & consequent rights of the black images of God,” Patterson wrote. “If military law recognizes the rights of men in black & white alike, why should not civil law when the war ceases.”

Rep. Daniel Marcy
Marcy’s decision was harder. Long a southern-sympathizing Democrat, he had even built a ship called the Frank Pierce in 1852. He had run for the House on an anti-draft, antiwar platform.

Marcy was absent when the House voted on the Thirteenth Amendment. He was one of eight Democrats who did not vote. The New Hampshire Patriot, the Democratic mouthpiece in the state, reported that he missed the vote because he was sick. In Running on the Record, an excellent history of Civil War-era politics in New Hampshire, author Lex Renda calls the Patriot’s claim of illness a lame excuse.

In 1865, Noah Brooks, a friend of Lincoln’s and a correspondent for the Daily Union in San Diego, reported: “It is not unfair to assume that these absentees were not unwilling that the amendment abolishing slavery should prevail, but were not willing to give it their active support.”

As the movie recounts, Democratic absences and abstentions were vital to the amendment’s passage. Had four more Democrats voted nay, the amendment would have come up short of a  two-thirds majority. The vote count was 119 for, 56 against. The New Hampshire Legislature ratified the amendment on July 1, 1865, shortly after its session began.  

Rep. Edward H. Rollins
It is also worth noting that Rollins, one of the Republicans who gave unanimous support to the amendment, would not have been out of place in one of the movie’s final scenes. (While Hale has his statue, Rollins has a small stone monument on the site of his house on North Main Street in Concord. It is near the street in front of the Hess gas station.)

At about 5 p.m. on April 14, 1865, Rollins showed up at the White House seeking Lincoln’s help with a petition from New Hampshire. Lincoln had already ended his workday, but after Rollins sent his card upstairs, the president came down to see what he wanted.

Lincoln then wrote this note to Edwin M. Stanton, the secretary of war, on Rollins’s behalf:

Hon. Secretary of War, please see and hear Hon. Mr. Rollins, & oblige him if you consistently can.
A. Lincoln     
April 14, 1865

Because of the assassination later that night, Rollins kept the note. Years later, Schuyler Colfax, the House speaker in 1865, told Rollins’s son that he had dined with Lincoln and walked him to his carriage for the ride to Ford’s Theatre. He said Lincoln signed no official papers after the one he signed for Rep. Rollins.

What I like about that little scrap of paper is what it reveals about Lincoln. Ever the politician, he appears to endorse the petition without really endorsing it. Like any leader with the good sense to delegate, he leaves it to Stanton to do as he wishes. 

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