James Mitchell Ashley is one of the many American politicians whose fame and importance are inversely related. Though a member of the United States Congress for only a decade, he served in it during one of the most important periods in its history, as he was elected on the eve of the Civil War and played a role in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and the implementation of Congressional Reconstruction. His greatest legacy, though, came from his efforts as a Radical Republican to end slavery, which culminated with his efforts to pilot the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives, ensuring its passage by Congress.
Part of the reason why Ashley is not better known is that most of his personal papers were destroyed prior to his death. To overcome the challenge posed by the lack of documentation, Rebecca Zietlow has written an intellectual biography of Ashley that situates his career in the political ideology of the era. As she explains, as a Democrat Ashley’s anti-slavery stance was primarily a product of his Jacksonian belief in the labor theory of value. Alienated from the increasingly proslavery Democratic Party, he found the free labor advocacy of the emerging Republicans to be far more appealing, and throughout the Civil War was among the leading advocates for using the war to end slavery. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Ashley focused on questions of enforcement, which led to his clash with Johnson that contributed to his defeat for re-election in 1868.
Given the challenges she faced in writing a biography of Ashley, Zietlow is to be commended for producing such a valuable study of his role in one of the most important eras in America’s constitutional development. Her linkage of the anti-slavery effort to the burgeoning issues of wage labor is particularly interesting, and gives the book an added relevancy for readers. Hopefully Zietlow’s efforts will restore to Ashley some of the esteem he enjoyed among his contemporaries for his role in ending slavery in the country and a newfound appreciation for his vision of free labor in America.