Review: Who Freed the Slaves? The Fight over the Thirteenth Amendment

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Book Review


Long after his Senate tenure, discussing the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage, Lyman Trumbull would tell law students, “Gentlemen, this good right hand wrote this amendment to the Constitution.” More than a century later, people who marveled at the brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln (or was it Lincoln’s performance as Daniel DayLewis?) without having studied the amendment’s passage in depth might have believed that maneuvering and bribery by a few shrewd political operators ended slavery. In both cases, the story was far more complex. A few historians have tried to unpack what actually happened. Their interpretations range from Michael Vorenberg suggesting that War Democrats deserve far more credit than they have received, to James Oakes emphasizing that Republicans had long been more united on the goal of ending slavery than scholars have believed, to scholars of slavery arguing for the “self-emancipation thesis”—that slaves, acting on what they knew politicians ultimately would have to do, forced Lincoln’s hand.

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