Frederick Douglass once said: ‘You are not judged by the height you have risen, but from the depth you have climbed.’
One hundred and fifty years ago, our nation resolved to climb out of the deepest, darkest chapter in American history–the insidious institution of slavery. –Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid
Yesterday, President Barack Obama; House Speaker Paul Ryan and House and Senate leaders (I hope House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was comfortable with his role during the ceremony); members of the Congressional Black Caucus; and other House members, Senators and guests commemorated 150 years since the ratification of the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. The august ceremony was held, most appropriately, in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, DC.
That profound, meaningful and important moment seemed to garner relatively little media attention and comment.
Perhaps it is because we don’t like to be reminded of the unpleasant aspects of our history. The violence and degradation and longevity of the Peculiar Institution sears the soul.
Those facts cannot be spun.
Ratifying the 13th amendment represents both the worst and best aspects of our country. It showed people–especially those who were business and political leaders–could and did descend to the worst depths of human greed and depravity. It also showed that we could course correct–albeit through great trials, tears and bloodshed.
But perhaps more importantly, such commemorations show that some of our worst impulses are not necessarily relics of the past, safely tucked away from present sight.
Courtesy U.S. Capitol Special Events
President Obama did not waste the moment to highlight this sad fact. For example, he underscored the importance of birthright citizenship with particular emphasis:
A hundred and fifty years proved the cure to be necessary but not sufficient. Progress proved halting, too often deferred.
Newly freed slaves may have been liberated by the letter of the law, but their daily lives told another tale. They couldn’t vote. They couldn’t fill most occupations. They couldn’t protect themselves or their families from indignity or from violence.
And so abolitionists and freedmen and women and radical Republicans kept cajoling and kept rabble-rousing, and within a few years of the war’s end at Appomattox, we passed two more amendments guaranteeing voting rights, birthright citizenship, equal protection under the law. –President Barack Obama
It was interesting to listen to the perspective each leader took on the subject. Speaker Ryan’s remarks were well written, and the beginning of his remarks, quoted below, particularly effective.
Courtesy Speaker Ryan
The 13th amendment. It’s just 43 words long. It is so short that when you read it, you can almost miss its significance. You have to stop and remind yourself: 600,000 people died in the Civil War. 600,000 died–over 43 words. Or to be more precise–they died in a war that decided whether those 43 words would ever be written. –House Speaker Paul Ryan
Read the Presidential Proclamation regarding the 13th amendment’s ratification. Make time to watch the entire ceremony.
(I understand the need to watch in snippets. In that case, I’ve noted the speaking times of the CBC Chairman and House and Senate leaders below.
- Watch CBC Chair G.K. Butterfield at the 30:53 mark
- Watch House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi at the 1:03:43 mark
- Watch House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the 1:06:42 mark
- Watch Senate Democratic Leader Reid at the 1:08:35 mark
- Watch Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the 1:13:41 mark
- Watch Speaker Ryan, in the clip above
- And watch President Obama at the 1:21:15 mark.)
Consider this quote, again from Senator Reid:
Slavery was a heartless institution where humans were treated as property–sold and traded for commercial gain, without concern for the loss of family.
Imagine your husband, your wife, your daughter, your son–being sold down the river. You often hear people use that expression, ‘sold down the river.’ How often do they stop and think about what it really means? We should. –Senate Democratic Leader Reid
Indeed. Words have meaning.
If slavery could have such a long-lasting effect on language, then it most certainly must have a long-lasting effect on people, whether or not we choose to acknowledge the wounds and scars.
And yet, here we are.
From the depths, we climb.