Born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, James Ashley moved with his parents and siblings to Portsmouth in the spring of 1826 at the age of four and grew to manhood here. His father, John Clinton Ashley was a minister in the Disciples (Campbellite) Church and served as a Justice of Peace and Township Trustee, providing the young Ashley a model of public service. According W. H. Siebert, a pioneering historian of the Underground Railroad, James Ashley began his active participation in the movement in 1841, at the age of seventeen, when he assisted two groups of slaves across the Ohio, transferring them by a small boat from near Greenup to two operators that lived below Portsmouth, on the West Side.
Nelson Evans, in his account of Ashley, notes that it was "during his life on the river [that] he saw much that horrified him with the slave system. In later years he used to relate how free negroes employed to work on the same steamer with himself would be kidnapped." In his teenage years, Ashley had worked on flat boats and steamboats, running up and down the Ohio and Mississppi Rivers. "At landing places where the steamer would stop to take on freight they would go ashore to help with the work, and would be arrested on the charge of being runaway slaves, and being unable, without money or friends, to make a defense, and no owner apearing, would finally be sold to pay the expenses of apprehending them."
In 1848, James Ashley joined with Edward Jordan to edit and publish the Democratic Inquirer, the first Democratic party aligned newspaper in Portsmouth. Ashley and Jordan would soon sell the paper to Francis Cleveland, who continued the enterprise. Ashley then studied law with Charles O. Tracy, was admitted to the bar, and ran for Mayor in 1851. Evans noted that Ashley lost the election because he split the Democratic vote with Judge William Oldfield. "If Judge Oldfield had kept out of the race Ashley might have been elected and his wonderful career belonged to the Portsmouth instead of the Toledo District." Ashley garnered 201 votes, Oldfield, 97, and the winner, Benjamin Ramsey, who ran as a Whig, had 261. According to Evans, "If the citizens of Portsmouth had known of what greatness and talent Mr. Ashley was possessed, probably this would not have occurred as Ramsey was a man who attained no distinction whatever and he was too lazy to live. But this discouraged young Ashley with Portsmouth and justly so."
In Evans' telling of the story, Ashley realized his secret and illegal underground railroad activities had become common knowledge when "he met a Quaker on the street who said to him. 'James, I think thee needs this,' at the same time handing him $20.00." According to Evans, "knowing that the Quaker was of anti-slavery sentiments he came to the conclusion that this money was given him to aid in the operation of the underground railway, and thinking that if the Quaker knew of his activity in that direction many others must, he decided to leave Portsmouth and in 1851, removed to Toledo, Ohio."
Ashley's defeat at the polls combined with revelations regarding his involvement with the Underground Railroad, led him to relaunch his political career in northwest Ohio, where he abandoned the Democratic Party and helped establish the new Republican Party. Ashley was elected to Congress just in time for the outbreak of the Civil War, and, in 1863, he filed legislation in Congress proposing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, forever abolishing slavery in the United States.
The Amendment read: "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." And, speaking in favor of its passage, Ashley told Congress: "I do not believe that there can be legally such a thing as property in man. A majority in a republic cannot rightfully enslave the minority, nor can the accumulated decrees of courts or the musty precedents of Governments make oppression just." Slavery, he argued, was "at war with human nature" and "at variance with the precepts of Christianity and every idea of justice." It had "bound men and women in chains, and even the children of the slave-master, and sold them in the public markets like beasts. Under the plea of Christianizing them it has enslaved, beaten, maimed, and robbed millions of men for whose salvation the Man of sorrows died. It so constituted its courts that the complaints and appeals of these people could not be heard by reason of the decision ‘that black men had no rights which white men were bound to respect.’ It has for many years defied the Government and trampled upon the national Constitution, by kidkapping, imprisoning, mobbing, and murdering white citizens of the United States guilty of no offense except protesting against its terrible crimes. It has silenced every free pulpit within its control, and debauched thousands which ought to have been independent. It has denied the masses of poor white children within its power the privilege of free schools, and made free speech and a free press impossible within its domain; while ignorance, poverty, and vice are almost universal wherever it dominates."
Ashley asserted, "If slavery is wrong and criminal, as the great body of enlightened and Christian men admit, it is certainly our duty to abolish it, if we have the power.” He then called on his colleagues in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of the Amendment:
“Pass this joint resolution submitting to the people for their ratification or rejection this proposed amendment to the national Constitution, and I am sure the nation will adopt it with shouts of acclamation, and when once adopted, you know, sir, and I know, and the enemies of this Government know, that we shall have peace, and that no such rebellion will ever be possible again. Pass this amendment and the gloomy shadow of slavery will never again darken that fair fame of our country or tarnish the glory of democratic institutions in the land of Washington."
When Ashley died in 1896, the Portsmouth Dailiy Times summed up his career without any mention of his role in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. They noted that Ashley "was in congress from 1858 to 1869. He introduced the original resolution for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. In 1869, he was appointed governor of Montana. He was interested in a number of railroads in Michigan and was a millionaire.” Ashley's role in the abolition of slavery remains largely unappreciated, though a renewed interest in the history of abolition and the underground railroad has drawn some well-deserved attention to Ashley.
In 2012, director Stephen Spielberg cast David Costabile as the curly-haired Congressman in his award-winning film, Lincoln. Today, Ashley is recognized as one of the most significant abolitionists in all of American history. While technically not a native of Portsmouth, the city can still rightly claim him as one of their greatest son's. It was here, along the Ohio River (which separated freedom from slavery) that Ashley first developed his disgust with human bondage and it was here that he first sought to help those who wished to escape their chains via the Underground Railroad.
The structure that housed Ashley's office was originally known as the Whitney Building and had once been the meeting place for the Mason’s Aurora Lodge No. 48. Later the three-story brick building was utilized as a feed store, run at various times by two different firms. James A. Maxwell appears to have established the feed business, which he later sold to the firm of Goltz and Molster. Maxwell eventually bought it back in 1897 and returned to his former business, operating the store until June of 1899, when it was razed to make room for the Washington Hotel, which still stands on what was once known as Micklethwait Corner at the intersection of Market and Second Streets in Portsmouth's Boneyfiddle Historic District. Though lost to "progress," thanks to the photographic record, we can still see where the Democratic Inquirer and the future author of the Thirteenth Amendment once worked during his early political career.
"Abolition of Slavery," Congressional Globe, 38th Congress, 2nd Session (6 January 1865): 138-141.
Robert F. Horowitz, Great Impeacher: A Political Biography of James M. Ashley (New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1979).
"James A. Mawell," Portsmouth Blade Industrial Edition (6 August 1898).
"Maxwell Buys It Back," Portsmouth Daily Times (8 September 1897).
Nelson W. Evans, "James M. Ashley" in A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902), p. 288-293.
Nelson W. Evans, "Pioneer Sketches, John Clinton Ashley" in A History of Scioto County, Ohio, Together with a Pioneer Record of Southern Ohio (Portsmouth, Ohio, 1902), p. 645-647.
“Portsmouth Prints: Seventy-Six Years of Local Journalism; Historical Sketch of Newspapers Published in Portsmouth From 1818 to the Present Time,” Portsmouth Daily Times (31 March 1894).
Rebecca E. Zietlow, "James Ashley's Thirteenth Amendment," Columbia Law Review, Vol. 112, No. 7 (2012).