February 1865: "Slavery is dead – dead – dead"

Joan Fink, Volunteer

William Gray Brooks diary 5, pages 1031-1032 with entries for 1-4 February 1865

William Gray Brooks diary 5, pages 1031-1032 with entries for 1-4 February 1865

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    "As the official information of the signing of the amendment to the Constitution by the President abolishing slavery forever in the States came yesterday, a salute of 100 guns was fired on the Common and the bells of the City rung one hour by request of the Governor," writes William Gray Brooks, a Boston merchant, in his diary entry for 2 February 1865, describing the euphoric reaction of many in the city of Boston to the news of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

    William Gray Brooks was born in Portland, Maine on 12 October 1805. A descendent of Reverend John Cotton of Boston, he was the son of Cotton Brown Brooks and Jane Williams Brooks. At the age of 19 Brooks moved to Massachusetts, where he was supported by a wide network of relatives, including his uncle Peter Chardon Brooks. On 9 September 1833, William Brooks married Mary Ann Phillips of Andover, Massachusetts. They had six sons: William, Phillips, George, Frederick, Arthur, and John. All but William and George entered the ministry. Phillips Brooks, the best known of the brothers, served as rector of Trinity Church for many years before being elected Bishop of Boston in 1891. George Brooks, the only son to enlist in the Civil War, died of typhoid in February 1863 while stationed in New Bern, North Carolina with the 45th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

    William Brooks reveals both personal and political interest in the progress of the Civil War throughout his diary. In early February 1865 he follows intently and reports on the news of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference. Although the United States Senate passed the 13th Amendment in April 1864, the House of Representatives did not pass this amendment until 31 January 1865. The amendment, which provided that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction," was then signed by President Lincoln on 1 February 1865. This event, memorialized by Brooks in his diary, was momentous, as it was the only time in American history that a President signed an amendment. The signature was seen as ceremonial rather than official, as the president's signature is not required.

    Brooks reports that "Slavery is dead – dead – dead & the States are fast accepting the Constitutional amendment." Indeed, by 3 February 1865 eight states had ratified the amendment. Massachusetts, who ratified on 7 February, was one of the 18 states that ratified in the month of February. But questions about the status of seceded states, especially those with reconstruction governments, prolonged the process and the Thirteenth Amendment was not ratified until December 1865.

    In addition to writing about the military gun salute and the ringing of the bells throughout the city that marked the amendments passage, Brooks notes a Grand Jubilee Meeting held at the Music Hall held on 4 February 1865. This celebration included speeches by William Lloyd Garrison, the famed abolitionist and orator, as well as John A. Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts.

    Looking beyond the excitement surrounding the abolition of slavery, Brooks also references the peace talks held in early February of 1865 aboard the steamboat "River Queen," docked in Hampton, Virginia. At those meetings, referred to as the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward represented the Federal Government, while the Confederacy was represented by Vice President Alexander Stephens, Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senator Robert M. T. Hunter. Many people, including Brooks, held high hopes that these talks would expedite the end of the war. Unfortunately, the Conference was unsuccessful in achieving that goal. The Confederacy was unable to compromise on several issues including the right to independence as well as the right to compensation for what they perceived to be property lost as a result of emancipation. President Lincoln and Secretary Seward were likewise unwilling to compromise on the question of permitting the continuance of slavery after the war.

    Brooks continues to note major happenings in the Civil War, including the surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the remainder of his life, Brooks was fascinated by both historical and genealogical pursuits. He died on 6 January 1879 at 73 years of age and was buried in North Andover, Massachusetts.

    Sources for Further Reading:

    The featured diary entries are extracted from one of 9 diary volumes contained in the William Gray Brooks papers. The diaries span from 1838 to 1877 with some significant gaps. The collection also contains some loose documents collected by Brooks.

    Allen, Alexander V. G. Life and Letters of Phillips Brooks. New York: Dutton, 1900.

    Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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