- The Forgotten Emancipator: James Mitchell Ashley and the Ideological Origins of Reconstruction by Rebecca E. Zietlow
Rebecca Zietlow, a law professor at the University of Toledo, has written the first full-scale biography of James Mitchell Ashley, an influential Republican Party politician who advocated for the freedom of slaves and the rights of laborers. His most significant contributions came during Reconstruction, when he shepherded the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress and supported bills establishing what Zietlow calls "a positive right to free labor" (131). His advocacy of free labor is as important to Zietlow as his antislavery radicalism. She argues that Ashley's free labor values precipitated his antislavery activism and persisted after slavery's destruction because he believed that capital should not exploit labor. Hence, for Ashley, "abolishing slavery was a necessary and groundbreaking accomplishment, but it was not the end of the struggle" (177). Zietlow shares Ashley's perspective on this issue. She bookends her study not with legal, historical, or historiographical analysis, but with a call to action in support of "racial and economic justice" (7). From this perspective, "James Ashley's story is one of leadership and activism" (2), and his "example of political engagement and struggle to achieve justice and equality may be his most important legacy" (187). She makes the case for his legacy by situating his career in the ideological currents of nineteenth-century antislavery and labor reform, contending that there was a substantial "convergence" between the two (12). Driven by those currents, Ashley helped to produce a critical reforging of "national identity" that included slavery's destruction, citizenship's expansion, and free labor's emergence (12).
Ashley is certainly an interesting and sympathetic figure. He was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in 1824, and developed a deep aversion [End Page 166] to slavery when young. His hostility primarily reflected his direct experience with slavery, a consequence of growing up "near the Ohio River," but his mother's opposition to slavery probably also shaped his outlook (20). His antislavery sentiments intensified at the age of fourteen, when he decamped from his family to live with Quaker abolitionists and began developing oratorical skills by "reciting" the speeches of Kentucky's famous abolitionist Cassius Clay (21). He became an activist by the age of eighteen, by which time he had become a student of southern politics. At the age of twenty-seven, when he began his political career by running for mayor of Portsmouth, Ohio, he had already joined the Underground Railroad and helped slaves escape to freedom. His activism undermined his mayoral bid, but it positioned him perfectly to join the rising antislavery movement, and in the early 1850s he "became a protégé of Salmon Chase," Ohio's foremost antislavery politician (22). Angered by the Democratic Party's pro-slavery policies, Ashley helped Chase establish Ohio's Republican Party in 1854 and won election to Congress as a Republican in 1858. His radicalism ran deep, extending to women's rights and racial equality, but, as he recalled, he "thoroughly educate[d] the people on the slavery question," and he won 55 percent of the vote in the 1858 general election (86). He was eager to use national power to abolish slavery, and he would do so with great success.
An "egalitarian free labor vision" underlay Ashley's politics (68). His vision partly reflected his Democratic Party roots. Notwithstanding the pronounced role of slaveholders in the party, Ashley believed that the "true Democratic position" was antislavery because the party represented the common man (69). Unlike most Democrats, however, Ashley married his populism to the belief that the American Constitution was fundamentally antislavery. Ashley owed this conviction to abolitionist legal theory. He contended that the Constitution promised "to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity," not "to enslave any man" (74). Hence, writes Zietlow, he endorsed the northern system of free labor, "in which workers were entitled to certain rights, including citizenship, equality, the protection of the government, and the...