On December 6, 1864, less than one month after his reelection, President Abraham Lincoln sent to Capitol Hill what would be his final State of the Union address. As he neared the conclusion, he called for the House to pass, as the Senate had already done, a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. He implored the lame-duck Congress to be bold before the session ended.
Congress answered the call. The next month, the Republican-plurality House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment. In doing so, Lincoln and the 38th Congress etched their places in the pantheon of courageous Americans who made the Union more perfect. And though it was unnecessary, Lincoln signed the amendment before it was sent to the states for ratification. He did so to mark for posterity his allegiance to the nation’s founding principles and to the extension of them to black Americans.
Lincoln was assassinated the following April. On December 6, 1865, exactly one year after his last address to Congress, Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the 13th Amendment, raising the total to the necessary three-quarters of the states. Ratification was officially certified on December 18.
This December is the 150th anniversary of that historic event. To honor the philosophical roots of the Republican party, remind the nation of its role in our history, and reaffirm its commitment to racial equality, the GOP, particularly Republican members of Congress, should lead a national, non-partisan commemoration of the day it transformed America.
In Lincoln’s words, “unanimity of action” is “almost indispensable.” The commemoration should be inclusive, recalling a moment in American history when our policy matched our principles, and should encourage us to confront the hard truths about race that we face even today. A quick perusal of the headlines shows that race remains a prominent national issue, and polls show that it remains divisive. But certainly Americans can unite in observing the sesquicentennial of the national decision to end slavery.
Ratification of the 13th Amendment is the most consequential action our nation has taken since it won independence. The commemoration should recognize both the electorate who willed the end of slavery and the soldiers who gave their lives to preserve the Union. And it should hold in high esteem the strength, faith, and determination of black Americans who persevered despite their deprivation of the benefits of the self-evident truths that our nation was founded on. The ceremony should serve as a national rededication to the virtues that unite different people under a common cause.
While the historic occasion belongs to all Americans, Republicans should take the lead in organizing the commemoration, to communicate that their party shares the ideals of their forerunners who ratified the 13th Amendment. Let’s face it: On race, the popular perception of the party is a problem. The party is not racist, but it cannot deny that it comes across as insensitive to the experiences of minorities, particularly black Americans.
Over the past 150 years, the nation has made enormous progress on race. The past few years have been marked by milestone anniversaries of monumental events — from the Emancipation Proclamation to the March on Washington and the March from Selma to Montgomery — when the nation was forced to confront racism. Republicans have either been absent from these remembrances or ceded leadership of them to independent organizers or Democratic officials. When that is coupled with deafening silence on race issues or with remarks by some in the party who label Black Lives Matter a movement advocating police killings and the Democratic party a plantation for black voters, it is clear that the Republican party has strayed from its roots.
It’s time for the party of Lincoln to awaken and resume its leading role in American race relations. But the moniker “party of Lincoln” cannot be simply a historical claim. Faith without works is dead, and so too is the party of Lincoln if it is unwilling to acknowledge the plight of American citizens and take action where necessary to ameliorate it. So a ceremony would not be enough. The party should take a hard look at the challenges facing black Americans and specify how present-day Republicans will address them.
The facts are clear. According to nearly every socioeconomic indicator, from income to health, black Americans lag behind the rest of the nation. Social mobility for many black Americans is terribly difficult, making the American dream unattainable for many.
Republicans should make explicit, for example, how their proposals for criminal-justice reform follow from the principles of the Eighth and 13th Amendments, which permit involuntary servitude as criminal punishment but require that such punishment not be cruel and unusual. They should also emphasize charter schools, homeschooling alternatives, and school-choice legislative proposals. These policies enjoy strong support in black communities, where quality of education is an important issue. The fastest-growing demographic of American entrepreneurs is black women, so Republicans should show how their economic plans and tax-reform proposals increase access to capital, which would enable black Americans to start their own small businesses and thereby reduce unemployment. Blacks have a higher military-participation rate, so Republicans should stress their positions on military pay, veterans’ care and employment, and preservation of associated benefits for housing and education. Suffering job and income losses, black workers are often the most affected by regulations that increase costs for businesses, so Republicans should show how a smarter regulatory structure is beneficial to them. Blacks are disproportionately victims of violent crime, so Republicans should show how they would make communities safer.
This is not identity politics. These are not special set-asides any more than Lincoln’s advocating the 13th Amendment was a set-aside for liberty for black Americans. Rather, these measures address the basic question of who is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are designed to remove barriers to self-determination so that all citizens can make of their lives whatever their hard work and talents allow.
Following a White House official’s rhetoric about “leading from behind,” Republicans have seized on the phrase as an aspersion to cast on Democrats. On race relations, however, the phrase fits the GOP, which has ceded the moral high ground. But the party can reclaim it, in substance as well as symbolically, and the anniversary of the 13th Amendment is the perfect occasion. As Lincoln asked in his final formal address to Congress — he was referring to passage of the amendment — “May we not agree that the sooner the better?”
– Mr. Johnson is a doctoral candidate in public policy at Northeastern University and a former White House Fellow.