(l-r) Charlotte Zietlow with her daughter, Rebecca Zietlow. Photo by Martin Boling


Bloomington native Rebecca Zietlow and 19th-century abolitionist James Ashley, the subject of her latest book, both have their parents to thank for their interest in social justice. 

The son of a preacher, Ashley saw slavery and forced labor as antithetical to Christian values and, as a young man, helped slaves escape. Zietlow is the daughter of Charlotte Zietlow, a former Bloomington City Council member and the first woman elected to the Monroe County Board of Commissioners, and the late Paul Zietlow, a professor of English at Indiana University. “I worked in all of my mother’s campaigns,” says Zietlow, a professor, historian, and former legal services lawyer. “Her activism made me very interested in politics.” 

Now, Zietlow’s 2017 book The Forgotten Emancipator: James Mitchell Ashley and the Ideological Origins of Reconstruction has been issued in paperback by Cambridge University Press.

A professor of law and values at the University of Toledo since 1995, Zietlow, 57, had been writing about the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era—“a fascinating and important time in our history”—when she first learned about Ashley at a conference. “Even among constitutional scholars he had been completely forgotten.” 

 But he was a formidable figure in the 19th century. As a congressman from Ohio, “Ashley was the first member of Congress to propose a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery,” Zietlow says. “Working with President Lincoln, he led the fight for passage of the amendment in the House of Representatives.” He also initiated the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson. “He saw Johnson as hostile to Reconstruction.”  

After the Civil War, Ashley became governor of the Montana Territory. “He saw an opportunity to start anew,” Zietlow says. “Ashley hoped to promote his anti-slavery and free labor goals, but Montana had a number of Confederates who had moved there after the war.” His views proved unpopular, he was recalled by President Grant, and he was forgotten by historians for a nearly a century.

A graduate of Bloomington High School North, Barnard College, and Yale Law School, Zietlow is teaching constitutional law as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin this year.