A Few Good Men: Coincidences and Anomalies of the (Obscure) Men Who Shaped 13th Amendment

I recently saw Steven Spielberg’s much acclaimed “Lincoln .” It was an unbelievable film that deserves every accolade it will receive. And there’ll be many. And for the many Lincoln experts who believe they know all of the intricacies and enigma relating to Lincoln the man, the movie will open many new windows about our 16th President. My respect for his leadership, abilities, and compassion have only grown.

Naturally, as a Presidential buff, “ Lincoln ” fascinated me. But as one who specializes in political figures and election anomalies, the film gives me an opportunity to point out some coincidences and anomalies between the cast’s central figures and some of their more modern successors. In other words, for me, “ Lincoln ” was a junkies gold mine.

The focus of “ Lincoln ” was trying to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, which would of course outlaw slavery. As the movie portrays, the amendment’s fate was far from assured. The Senate had passed it by a wide margin but the House had actually failed to do so earlier in the session. Passing it in “Lame-Duck” would require securing votes of at least some of the members who had been unseated in the previous election. That made winning over these lawmakers partly with, shall we call it, er, favors.

Chief among those Lincoln was cultivating: Alexander Coffroth, the Pennsylvania Congressman with a forever mangled name (“cough drop, etc),whose vote was crucial. Just as Spielberg portrayed it, Coffroth was contesting his election, trailed William Koontz by 68 votes. But his vote for the 13th amendment sealed the deal for his return, as the Governor gave the House the authority to decide who to seat.
Coffroth resided in Somerset County , and his turf today encompasses the bulk of the old Murtha district, though Cambria County (Murtha’s beloved Johnstown ) wasn’t a part of it in those days. It would’ve been interesting to see how Coffroth would’ve adapted to matters such as earmarks, which the late Murtha was so adept at providing.

Coffroth’s electoral challenge today? Not overcoming the local antipathy over the 13th amendment, but surviving redistricting. Always a struggle, though the fact that he became a Republican (keeping his word to Stevens), may’ve seen him through.

Kentucjy Congressman George Yeaman was another outgoing Congressman whose vote Lincoln needed. He had a special and rare affinity to the 16th President. Both were born in Hardin County , Kentucky . Lincoln ’s nurturing of Yeaman with his stories of his father made that bond a reality.

After initially resisting Lincoln ’s entreaties, Yeaman elicited guffaws in the chamber by voting for the amendment. One of Yeaman’s successors in Owensboro area district was Bill Natcher, whose legacy was having never missed a vote in his nearly 41 years in office (until just before his death). But he surely didn’t inherit that diligence from Yeaman Between December 1862&March of ’65,Yeaman had missed 45% of his votes, perhaps a prime reason he had already lost his seat (54-45%) by the time the 13th amendment came along

The amendment’s author, James Ashley, was a remarkable man, but it would defy imagination to call him a remarkable vote getter. In his five races for the House of Representatives, Ashley never garnered more than 53.4%. In one case, he escaped defeat by just 51-49%., and in his 1862 re-election, he mustered just 38.6% in a three way race. His Lucas County (Toledo) based district exists in similar form today and is heavily Democratic, so much so that a great-grandson Thomas “Lud” Ashley served the same area in Congress from 1955-’81 and was friends with George H.W. Bush at Yale. Marcy Kaptur holds the seat today.

While eradicating slavery was lifelong cause for Ashley, it was not only area of prominence. He became active in impeachment proceedings against Andrew Johnson and in later years, went west, serving as territorial Governor of Montana. He died in 1896.

House Ways&Means Chair Thaddeus Stevens was James Buchanan’s Congressman, though as a Republican who opposed slavery, was likely not Buchanan’s candidate.

Unlike Ashley, Stevens’ hold on his district was firm (he ran unopposed in 1860). Indeed, his worry-free elections likely gave him more time to investigate Mary Todd Lincoln’s finances, which means the portrayal of her awkward confrontation at the White House New Year’s party that intrigued guests and left her husband in a shamefaced daze must have been accurate.

Stevens had a non-consecutive House tenure. He did not serve between 1853&’59. He was also instrumental in Andrew Johnson’s impeachment episode and died a year later, with his African-American housekeeper/mistress by his side. Little has changed politically for Stevens’ Lancaster based district. It is as Republican as it was in his day.

One of those men at that New Year’s party was Ben Wade. His minor role in the movie belies the fact that he had a major historical footnote. Had the impeachment of Johnson succeeded (as even the President believed it would), it was the Ohian who would’ve assumed the Presidency. Instead, he

Also a part of Stevens’ political world, in politics and in life was Edward McPherson, who read the names of each Congressmen. McPherson was an associate at Stevens’ law firm, then became a colleague in Congress. They clearly saw eye to eye. The irony is that McPherson lost his bid for re-election to a Democrat, Archibald McCallister, who ended up voting for the 13th. Stevens then helped McPherson become clerk of the House, a position that he held on three separate occasions before his 1895 death.

George Pendleton was a thorn in the spine, but it may’ve been sour grapes. The Congressman from Ohio had been the running mate of General George McClellan just a few months before and Lincoln/Johnson had beaten them soundly. Pendleton wanted to block passage but that was as successful as his running mate’s execution of the early war. It was said that had McClellan pursued Lee, the war may’ve ended sooner. But and so Lincoln relieved him.

The ironies of history may also extend to Lincoln ‘s family. His eldest son and the only one to live to maturity, Robert Todd, was a political force in his own right, serving as Minister to Great Britain and War Secretary in the Garfield and Arthur administrations. He witnessed James Garfield’s assassination and was at the Pan American Exposition when the same fate felled a third President, William McKinley. If that weren’t enough,, he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery , where John F. Kennedy lies. Robert was supposed to be at Ford’s Theater on the night of April 14, and was said to feel guilty long after about not.

Schuyler Colfax was the Speaker of the House of Representatives who presided over the debate. He insisted on casting a vote for the 13th amendment even though he acknowledged that it was “highly unusual” for the Speaker to do so. Colfax later became Vice-President under Ulysses Grant, inviting a similarity with another future Vice-President who had a highly prominent role in a major Civil Rights issue 100 years later. Hubert Humphrey helped shepherd the Civil Rights Act to passage, staring down giants of the Senate (Richard Russell and the entire Southern bloc) determined to block it.

By the end of the year, he was Vice-President. But one key difference. While Humphrey was unquestionably honest, Colfax, while never charged with wrong doing, was involved in what today would be called a campaign finance scandal. It was enough to get him dumped from the ticket in 1872.

My sole problem with ” Lincoln .” For a movie that so elaborately researched and choreographed, you’d think they could’ve used the actual names of the Congressman in the roll call.

The Connecticut delegation that was first to answer the call, Benjamin, Bentleigh and Ellis,never existed. Neither did Missourian’s Appleton and Josiah “Beanpole” Burton .

Even Clay Hawkins, who cast a stunning “aye”before he bellowed out “shoot me” and Ed LeClerk, who said “shoot me too” (before ultimately abstaining) were composite characters

Harold Hollister, the virulent gun-wielding Indiana Congressman who refused to back 13th, was also fictional, though I’m sure he accurately displayed the feelings of many back then.

Finally, there’s always a lesson of how past history relates to current events. I’m not in any way comparing this election to 1864 (though in many ways, our nation remains sharply divided)but I did find one similarity to Lincoln ‘s 2nd win.

Through Sept.1864,national Democrats were sensing that Lincoln might be beaten. But Sherman ’s capture of Atlanta turned opinion of war. This year, a late brightening of the unemployment picture and Sandy definitely aided Obama. And so it goes.

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