Toledo congressman looms large in ‘Lincoln’

James M. Ashley brought to life in movie


While big-name actors such as Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens clearly outshine him, Toledo Congressman James M. Ashley — portrayed by actor David Constabile — still plays a pivotal role in the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln.

Mr. Ashley, a Republican who served in Congress from 1859 to 1869, was a staunch abolitionist who sponsored the 13th Amendment in the House. In the film, he initially tells the president it would be “impossible” to gain passage of the amendment abolishing slavery early in 1865 as Mr. Lincoln wanted.

RELATED ARTICLE: Lincoln's slippers take star turn from Fremont to Hollywood

Later, after much politicking and persuasion, the divide in the House narrows. Mr. Ashley goes to Mr. Stevens and implores him to compromise a bit, to tell the House the 13th Amendment is not about racial equality but about “legal equality for all.”

Mr. Stevens takes his advice, helping propel the amendment to its ultimate passage.

In a recent interview with BuzzFeed, Mr. Constabile conceded he didn’t know who Mr. Ashley was until he landed the part.

“You’d have to be deep in American history to know who my character was,” he said. “He actually had a lifelong support for abolition. In the movie, his views seem much more centrist, but he was actually quite a radical abolitionist.”

In 2010, the federal courthouse in Toledo was renamed the James M. Ashley and Thomas W. L. Ashley United States Courthouse in honor of the abolitionist and his great-grandson, who served 13 terms in Congress from the mid-1950s through the 1970s.

The same year, a pitch was made to have James M. Ashley replace former Ohio Gov. William Allen in the National Statuary Hall in Washington as one of two representatives from Ohio. The legislature chose Thomas Edison instead.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: or 419-724-6129.