When you watch the Oscars this weekend, remember that a Northeast Missouri man played a significant, but largely forgotten, role in the history behind one film.
The Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln" leads the list of Academy Award nominations with 12. The film tells the story of the fight in the House of Representatives for passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.
However, by the time the legislation reached the House, it was pretty well set in stone. Yes, approval took seven months, but the real controversy had been in the Senate.
It was there that the debate focused not only upon the words that should be used in the amendment, but whether the Constitution needed changing at all.
In the end, the 13th Amendment and the two that immediately followed marked the start of a new way of looking at the greatest set of legal, ethical and moral guidelines penned by man. It's a view many still hold today.
The man leading the Senate charge was John Brooks Henderson, a lawyer and legislator from Louisiana, Mo.
Despite being a Democrat, Henderson was one of several abolitionists who were close friends of Abraham Lincoln. The president had relatives on his mother's side who were buried in Louisiana's Riverview Cemetery.
During the Civil War, Lincoln valued Henderson's input because the senator was from a border state where slavery was allowed. The two men began meeting regularly after Henderson was appointed to the Senate on Jan. 17, 1862.
Two months later, Lincoln proposed emancipating the slaves by compensating owners. On Sept. 3, 1862, Henderson wrote Lincoln a letter in which he gave the president his full support.
"Your course is correct," Henderson wrote. "Be just and fear not."
Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, with the final version coming on Jan. 1, 1863.
However, it didn't free a single slave. So, on Jan. 11, 1864, Henderson introduced a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment banning slavery, this time with no compensation included.
The Senate Judiciary Committee blended versions submitted by Henderson and Senators James Ashley of Ohio and James Wilson of Iowa. The final version was very similar to Henderson's original draft.
At that point, the Constitution had not been changed in six decades, and many legislators thought that it should be left untouched.
Others were loathe to interfere with states' rights. They pointed out that the Constitution specifically left all issues not addressed by the document to the states. Slavery, they suggested, was a state issue.
Henderson was quick to point out that slavery proponents couldn't have it both ways. He said they were hypocrites for arguing that slavery was a state issue and then turning around and saying human ownership fell under the Constitution's Seventh Amendment protection of property rights.
Henderson had an answer for the many who said that the founders intended the Constitution to stand as written. He pointed to the fact that if such an assumption were true, a clause for making changes never would have been put into the document.
"It surely is not unconstitutional to amend the Constitution," he said.
For his part, Lincoln had already pushed the boundaries of the Constitution and presidential powers by suspending the right of habeas corpus and declaring martial law.
So, in the Senate debate over the constitutional amendment, Henderson placed an end to slavery on higher moral ground than the usual legislation. He challenged his colleagues to stand up for principle and put an end to a war that had cost both sides dearly.
"This determination to abolish slavery in some way constitutes the strongest reason for abolishing it legally and without violence to other rights" Henderson said on the floor of the Senate on April 7, 1864. "If it were a blessing, I, for one, would be defending it to the last. It is a curse, and not a blessing. Therefore, let it go."
The next day, the Senate passed the proposal. The House ratified it and sent it to the states on Feb. 1, 1865. Lincoln was assassinated in April, but that didn't stop the amendment's momentum.
It was declared adopted on Dec. 6, 1865, when Georgia approved ratification. The state of Mississippi finally submitted the documentation to ratify just this year -- on Feb. 7, 2013.
Henderson left Congress in 1869. However, he was far from done making headlines.
In 1873, Henderson unsuccessfully fought for St. Louis suffragist Virginia Minor's right to cast a ballot. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Henderson also served as a special prosecutor in the Whiskey Ring scandal in St. Louis. He had been appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant, but Grant fired him because he spoke out against the president's interference in the prosecutions.
Henderson later served as a commissioner to discuss treaties with hostile Indian tribes and continued to write and speak about what he saw as America's greatest needs. He died in Washington at age 86 in 1913, and is buried in New York City.
Ironically, Henderson himself was a slave owner during his time in Missouri. In an 1866 speech, he said that one slave had been willed to him and that he bought the others after they begged him to do so to prevent their sale to a contemptuous owner.
Henderson never fully justified his ownership of humans, but he did acknowledge that a higher power was involved in his abolitionist efforts.
"Man may be unjust, but God is just, and as He is more powerful than man, so His justice is borne on to ultimate triumph against all human obstacles," he said.
Perhaps history would be better served if movie audiences knew the full measure of Henderson's work for freedom and equality.
By Brent Engel For the Courier-Post
Hannibal Courier - Post - Hannibal, MO
By Brent Engel For the Courier-Post
Updated Feb. 22, 2013 @ 2:37 pm
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