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Opinion | Remembering Jacob M. Howard on Juneteenth

In celebrating Juneteenth, we should remember Michigan U.S. Senator Jacob M Howard.  No person in the history of America has contributed more to establishing the U.S. Constitutional framework abolishing slavery, guaranteeing citizenship for slaves and their right to vote than Howard. Yet, there is no permanent monument recognizing him and his commitment to freedom and equality in Michigan or anywhere else. 

Born in Vermont and educated in law in Massachusetts, Howard opened a law practice in Detroit in 1832 that included representing runaway slaves being reclaimed under the federal Fugitive Slave Act. In addition to his general practice, Howard served in two other important legal capacities in Michigan. In 1834, Howard was appointed Attorney for the City of Detroit and later served as Michigan Attorney General from 1855 to 1861.

John E. Mogk headshot
John E. Mogk is a distinguished service professor at Wayne State University Law School

As many lawyers do, Howard also engaged in elected politics, where his greatest contributions were made to Michigan and the country. He represented Detroit in the state Legislature from 1838 to 1840 and in Congress from 1841 to 1843. Then, in 1854 he helped organize the Under the Oaks Convention in Jackson, galvanizing political opposition to slavery and establishing the Republican Party. He had the responsibility for drafting the platform for the newly named Republican Party and his anti-slavery plank read: 

"Resolved, that the Institution of slavery, except in punishment of a crime, is a great moral, social and political evil; …Resolved, that slavery is a violation of the rights of man as man; that law of nature, which is the law of liberty, gives to no man rights superior to those of another; That God and nature have secured to each individual the inalienable right of equality, any violation of which must be the result of superior force".

This powerful creed reflects Howard’s character and conviction. He saw African Americans as men when many in America saw African Americans as less than human. Howard’s words that “slavery is a violation of the rights of man as a man,” go to the very essence of the abolitionist movement and the later words of Frederick Douglass in his “I am a Man” speech. Howard recognized the humanity and equality of African Americans and advocated passionately for their equal rights throughout his life.

Following the Civil War, his actions led to the creation of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  His words are those of the 13th Amendment:

  • Section 1: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
  • Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
black and white photo of Jacob M. Howard
Jacob M. Howard (National Archives/Brady National Photographic Art Gallery)

He felt that Congress could enforce the 13th Amendment, which freed all those subjected to slavery. He then considered the need to protect the rights of all Americans, thus the 14th Amendment, which includes guaranteeing citizenship of those freed from slavery.  Like the 13th Amendment, his words are also those of the first sentence of the 14th Amendment:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

Then, Howard lead the effort to assure the right to vote for slaves in adopting the 15th Amendment:

  • Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
  • Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Howard was one of six U.S. senators to serve on the Joint Commission for Reconstruction. No lawyer since our founding fathers has made such significant changes to the U.S. Constitution. 

In his lifetime, Howard wrote state and national laws whose principles and precepts are still observed today. In addition to his monumental anti-slavery contributions, he is responsible for important Michigan legislation of the 19th century regulating railroads and investigating "wildcat banks."  Even more importantly, he is responsible for the nation's first "whistleblower act", the Lincoln Law.  

Howard is recognized as one of the most conscientious, hardworking, sincere and principled men in 19th-century America. He deserves honors for his contributions to the laws of the land. As U.S. senator, he was in a position to help create what America is today. 

Howard died on April 8, 1871. The words of the 13th Amendment are inscribed on his monument in historic Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit. Howard’s wish was that his grave would be marked with a tall obelisk, and that if racial equality had not been achieved by the time of his death that the top of the obelisk be broken, symbolic of his incomplete life’s work. To this day the obelisk remains unfinished.

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