College of Law

Professor Rebecca Zietlow Authors New Cambridge University Press Book on Toledo Congressman’s Influence on 13th Amendment

June 5, 2017

Professor Rebecca ZietlowAfter five years of research and writing, Rebecca Zietlow, Charles W. Fornoff Professor of Law and Values at The University of Toledo College of Law, completed her book The Forgotten Emancipator: James Mitchell Ashley and the Ideological Origins of Reconstruction.  Edited by leading legal historian Chris Tomlins, the book will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

For over 15 years, Zietlow has been researching Reconstruction-era American history.  Due to her interest and scholarship, she helped form the Thirteenth Amendment Project, a group of scholars and practitioners who examine the history and promise of this amendment.  Despite the fact that the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, there is relatively little legal scholarship about it.  This is surprising considering that the amendment, she argues, also provides protections for workers and additional support for civil rights action by the federal government.

Zietlow’s book is unique in that she examines both this critical amendment and historical period through the work of James Mitchell Ashley.  Ashley, a lawyer from Toledo, was a major leader in the Reconstruction-era Congress, serving Toledo as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and helping to found the Republican Party.  He was the first person to propose amending the U.S. Constitution to end slavery and worked alongside Abraham Lincoln to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Ashley thought beyond the abolition of slavery, promulgating ideas such as voting rights for blacks, civil rights, and protections for non-slave workers including groups such as industrial workers in the North and Chinese railroad laborers. 

Despite this legacy, many constitutional law scholars are unfamiliar with Ashley as little has been written about him.  Southern historians painted him as a “carpetbagger” intent on taking advantage of the South after its loss in the Civil War.  He also left Congress clouded in controversy due to his relentless and unwavering pursuit of both Reconstruction-era ideals and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.  

To Zietlow, Ashley’s work is still relevant today.  She notes the continuing need to protect minorities and workers as evidenced by eroding civil rights, dwindling worker autonomy, and requiring covenants not to compete even for low-wage workers.  Ashley also deserves recognition because of the pivotal role that he played in transforming our Constitution and government.  “He helped change our government from one based on slavery to one that abolished slavery and created individual rights,” said Zietlow.

Ashley’s legacy still lives on in Toledo.  Many local attorneys and judges are familiar with the James M. Ashley and Thomas W. L. Ashley U.S. Courthouse, which houses the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in downtown Toledo.  (Thomas “Ludd” Ashley was James Ashley’s grandson who served Toledo in the U.S. House of Representatives for two decades.)  Ashley’s final resting place is the beautiful Woodlawn Cemetery, just a few miles from the courthouse that bears his name.  Back in 2006, when Toledo Law hosted its annual Law Review Symposium on James Ashley and the Reconstruction, several Ashley family members attended the event along with U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur.

“Professor Zietlow's scholarship has consistently advanced our understanding of the Thirteenth Amendment and Reconstruction,” said Kara Bruce, associate dean for faculty research and development.  “This book is a capstone of that impressive body of work and a valuable contribution to Toledo history.”



Last Updated: 4/3/20