Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Tuesday

January 8, 2013

Local woman related to 13th Amendment writer

CEDAR — President Abraham Lincoln knew James Ashley, an Ohio congressman, held an iron-clad belief against slavery.

So he tapped Ashley to write the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery. The amendment passed, nearly intact, in 1865.

"Lincoln knew that he was the person to do it," said Cedar resident Becky Ashley Ross, who is Ashley's great-great-granddaughter.

Ross learned of her family's noble historical legacy as a child. She said she had goose bumps watching Ashley portrayed in the movie "Lincoln" by actor David Costabile.

"I was so excited, but it was even more than that," Ross said. "I was proud."

Ross's great-great-grandfather witnessed the horrors of slavery after he ran away from home and worked on river steamboats. The experience inspired him to abolish the practice.

Ross was surprised to see Ashley depicted in the movie as a slightly plump man with curly hair and a cherubic face. He was actually very tall with dark, straight hair and finely-cut features. Sally Ashley, the family historian, wrote to Ross that Ashley's borderline legal maneuvering to get the needed Democratic votes for the 13th Amendment was spread to three offbeat characters. No matter. The film portrayed what's seemingly lost in politics, and that's relationships, Ross said.

Ross knows of what she speaks. Her uncle, Thomas "Lud" Ashley, a liberal Democratic Ohio Congressman of 26 years, was close friends with George H.W. Bush. Lud retired from Congress in 1981, when Democrats and Republicans could still enjoy a drink after duking out an issue.

"They were of a different generation," Ross said. "They really had to work together."

Ross spent her childhood summers at a Leelanau County cottage built by her mother's folks in 1939. Her parents retired to Leland in 1995, and Lud Ashley later joined them. Ross said she and her husband moved here permanently in 2009 to help care for them, but all three passed away within the last three years.

Ross's memories of Lud and her father, Charles, a Toledo manufacturer, remain vivid. She grew up listening to politics at the dinner table. Black and white portraits of James Ashley, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington hung on the walls of her Toledo, Ohio, house, gazing upon the steady flow of visitors.

"When Lud was elected, I was one year old and he lived with us when he wasn't in D.C.," Ross said. "So my whole (life) growing up was elections. My dad was Lud's behind-the-scenes speech editor and worked on everything with him."

Ross, 61, recently revisited her family history at her Cedar dining room table with brittle historic documents spread out before her, including James Ashley's typed testimonial of meeting Lincoln for the first time. In the margins are his penciled edits.

Ross's daughter, Sarah Mills, 35, said she learned to prepare well before jumping into family debates.

"You had to be ready to hold your own, no matter what your age," she said.

Mills said history came full circle when she interned at the Traverse City Planning Department and studied an affordable housing proposal involving carriage houses. Planning Director Russ Soyring suggested several readings.

"Three of them were written by Lud about NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard) and affordable housing," she said. "It's such a small world."

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