Though the story of emancipation is well known in American history, the roles of many of the key figures involved in it are often overlooked. Among them is James Mitchell Ashley, the Ohio congressman who shepherded the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives. In The Forgotten Emancipator: James Mitchell Ashley and the Ideological Origins of Reconstruction
(Cambridge University Press, 2018), Rebecca E. Zietlow
recounts the intellectual development of Ashley as an abolitionist and how he sought to turn freedom into a reality for millions of African Americans. As Zietlow explains, an important strain in Ashley’s thinking was his commitment to the free labor ideas prominent in the Democratic Party in the antebellum era. As a committed abolitionist, he played a prominent role in the emergence of the Republican Party in Ohio in the 1850s culminating in his election to Congress in 1858. As a representative during one of the critical period in the nation’s history, Ashley was at the forefront of Congress’ response to the issue of slavery during the Civil War, working not just to pass the amendment that ended the “peculiar institution” but to craft legislation designed to ensure that the freedom won by African Americans was real and not undermined by the unreconstructed Southern governments in power in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.