Did you know? Toledo congressman introduced legislation that would eventually outlaw slavery

Did you know? Toledo congressman introduced legislation that would eventually outlaw slavery

TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - Ever heard of James Ashley?  It's not surprising if you haven't, but he may be one Toledo's great hidden historical figures.

James Ashley was a major figure of the Civil War, and a hero to many.  He was not, however, a soldier.

The uniform he wore was a long dress coat and tie, for he was Toledo's 5th District Congressman during much of the Civil War.

His most lasting legacy was that this "radical Republican" and extreme abolitionist introduced the 13th amendment to the constitution, outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States.

That was no small contribution, and it was one of many actions taken by the Toledo Congressman to abolish not only the practice of slavery but the unequal treatment of blacks following their emancipation.

Ashley died 121 years ago, on September 16th, 1896, at the age of 72.

Interestingly, there are no statues to Ashley in Toledo, no memorial plaques, or bridges or major streets named in his honor.

For many years his name and place in history were barely been recognized locally.

Although in 2008, the U.S. District Courthouse in Toledo was named for him.

An honor, however, that is shared with his great grandson Thomas "Lud" Ashely who was a longtime congressman from this area from 1955 to 1981.

James Ashley, the son of an itinerant preacher, was not born in Ohio, but in Pennsylvania in 1824.

Ashley said that during his travels in the Ohio River Valley with his father, he often saw chained slaves being transported and sold.

He found the scenes deplorable and it left a deep impression on his young mind.

As he grew older, the revulsion of slavery only grew stronger and as a teenager he helped runaway slaves escape to the North while he worked on the river boats of the Ohio River.

Ashley, who later became trained in law, did not practice as an attorney, but spent much of his young years working against slave owners in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act which made it illegal to help slaves escape their bonds.

Ashley would eventually head north and find a home in Toledo where he opened a drug store and made no attempt to conceal or mollify his opposition to slavery.

He was a rabid abolitionist and became active in politics.

By 1863, he advanced his status in the Republican party and was elected to Congress from Toledo.

One of his first actions was to propose legislation that would eventually become the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, outlawing slavery. No small legacy.

After the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln, Ashley was not pleased with Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson and harbored a belief that Johnson may have somehow been involved in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln.

As Johnson's attitude turned more sympathetic to white southerners, and against the newly freed slaves, Toledo's fiery Congressman Ashley introduced legislation to begin impeachment proceedings against Johnson.

It took a few months, but Johnson was eventually impeached.

He managed to escape removal from office by the Senate by only one vote.

Ashley's strident voice in favor of equal rights for blacks was not popular with many people in Toledo as they were not yet ready to allow the former slaves to enjoy the same freedoms of equal pay, political inclusion or freedom of speech enjoyed by whites.

As a result, Ashley was defeated for reelection to Congress in 1868.

His political fortunes did not end there however.

A newly elected President Grant offered Ashley the governorship of the territory of Montana.

But Ashley was so outspoken in his criticism of the republican leadership and administration, he hardly lasted a year in his new Western post and soon returned to Ohio.

For the balance of his life, Ashely returned to the business world, starting and operating the Toledo, Ann Arbor and Northern Michigan Railroad with his son James Jr.

Ashley developed diabetes and in 1896, on September 16th, while on a fishing trip, he died of a heart attack.

He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo.

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