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Law professor authors book on Toledo congressman’s influence on 13th Amendment

After five years of research and writing, Rebecca Zietlow, Charles W. Fornoff Professor of Law and Values at the UT College of Law, completed her book, “The Forgotten Emancipator: James Mitchell Ashley and the Ideological Origins of Reconstruction.”

Edited by leading legal historian Chris Tomlins, the book was published by Cambridge University Press in November.

For more than 15 years, Zietlow has been researching Reconstruction-era American history. Due to her interest and scholarship, she helped form the 13th Amendment Project, a group of scholars and practitioners who examine the history and promise of this amendment. Despite the fact that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, there is relatively little legal scholarship about it. This is surprising considering that the amendment, she argues, also provides protections for workers and additional support for civil rights action by the federal government.

Zietlow’s book examines both this critical amendment and historical period through the work of James Mitchell Ashley. Ashley, a lawyer from Toledo, was a major leader in the Reconstruction-era Congress, serving Toledo as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and helping to found the Republican Party. He was the first person to propose amending the U.S. Constitution to end slavery and worked alongside Abraham Lincoln to secure passage of the 13th Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ashley thought beyond the abolition of slavery, promulgating ideas such as voting rights for blacks, civil rights, and protections for non-slave workers, including groups such as industrial workers in the North and Chinese railroad laborers.

Despite this legacy, many constitutional law scholars are unfamiliar with Ashley as little has been written about him. Southern historians painted him as a carpetbagger intent on taking advantage of the South after its loss in the Civil War. He also left Congress clouded in controversy due to his relentless and unwavering pursuit of both Reconstruction-era ideals and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

Zietlow

To Zietlow, Ashley’s work is still relevant today. She notes the continuing need to protect minorities and workers as evidenced by eroding civil rights, dwindling worker autonomy, and requiring covenants not to compete even for low-wage workers.

Ashley also deserves recognition because of the pivotal role he played in transforming the Constitution and government. “He helped change our government from one based on slavery to one that abolished slavery and created individual rights,” Zietlow said.

Ashley’s legacy still lives on in Toledo. Many local attorneys and judges are familiar with the James M. Ashley and Thomas W. L. Ashley U.S. Courthouse, which houses the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in downtown Toledo. Thomas “Ludd” Ashley was James Ashley’s grandson who served Toledo in the U.S. House of Representatives for two decades. Ashley’s final resting place is the Woodlawn Cemetery, just a few miles from the courthouse that bears his name. In 2006, when the UT College of Law hosted its annual Law Review Symposium on James Ashley and the Reconstruction, several Ashley family members attended the event along with U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur.

“Professor Zietlow is one of the nation’s leading scholars of the Reconstruction Era, and her new book is a great contribution to the literature on the 13th Amendment,” UT Law Dean D. Benjamin Barros said. “By reminding us of the role and worldview of Congressman James M. Ashley, Professor Zietlow enriches our understanding of an important historical era and provides important context to contemporary issues of equality.”

“Professor Zietlow’s scholarship has consistently advanced our understanding of the 13th Amendment and Reconstruction,” said Kara Bruce, associate dean for faculty research and development, and professor in the College of Law. “This book is a capstone of that impressive body of work and a valuable contribution to Toledo history.”