The 13th Amendment holds a special and prominent place in American history. Initially passed by the U.S. Congress on January 31, 1865, and later ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment committed America to abolishing slavery. The Amendment would state: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” These powerful words would constitute a major shift in post-Civil War America and change the political landscape of a nation still reeling from the horrors of civil strife. Related constitutional amendments (i.e. the 14th and 15th Amendments) in the years following the 13th Amendment granted citizenship and voting rights to Black men, leading to unprecedented African American representation in the Southern states and the U.S. Congress. It would not be until 1969, 104 years later, did African Americans again reach a comparable level of representation in either the U.S. Congress or state legislatures.
It is important to look at the 13th Amendment in the context of U.S. history. Two years prior to the amendment, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), 3 years into a bloody, and what appeared to be an endless, Civil War. It is astounding to think that during a conflict that tore America apart, the President so strongly believed in the power of individual freedom – regardless of race – that he pushed an agenda that cost him his life. Lincoln’s proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” It was indeed the Emancipation Proclamation that set in motion the road to constitutional guarantees that would resolutely place those rights in law. That said the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in a number of ways. Firstly, it applied only to states that had seceded from the Union. This meant that slavery was still in practice in the loyal border states. In addition, it essentially exempted parts of the Confederacy that had been under Northern control. Moreover, the rights laid out in the proclamation was entirely dependent on a strong Union military victory to enforce it on the Union. Aware of its limitations President Lincoln knew the importance of enshrining these new rights through a constitutional amendment that would uphold the abolishment of slavery. Lincoln’s decision would transform not only the character of the Civil War but shape the debate around civil rights for more than a generation.
President Lincoln recognized the opportunity to push the 13th Amendment through the U.S. Congress before the Southern states could be restored to the Union (and thus eliminate the possibility of the Southern states rejecting the vote). However, while the Senate passed the amendment in April of 1864, the House of Representatives failed to do so. Undeterred, President Lincoln remained so confident in the passing of the amendment he mandated that the Republic Party, of which he belonged, place the amendment as a core component of its platform for the 1864 Presidential elections. Success arrived in January of 1865 when the House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment with a vote of 119 to 56. While ratification occurred on December 6th of that same year, the United States had found a constitutional solution to the abhorrent issue of slavery. The 13th Amendment, and the 14th and 15th Amendments that came shortly afterwards, greatly expanded the civil rights of so many African Americans. We can often overlook the 200,000 African Americans who fought in the Civil War who deserved their rightful place equal among citizens, or the 10-12 million slaves who were brought to America over the centuries – right up until 1866. When the opportunity arose, the United States chose to envision a better life for all of its citizens. The outcome could have just as easily been drastically different and far less progressive.
On the 150th anniversary year of the 13th Amendment, we are afforded the opportunity to celebrate its historic and transformative legacy. We are reminded, almost daily, that the issue of civil rights and race still permeate American politics and society in our contemporary world. We can only hope that the vision that was shown 150 years ago can be found again by our political leaders and our rapidly changing society. Historical anniversaries serve a double purpose: they allow us to look back on our great achievements, but they also serve as a litmus test on whether we have learned from our past. Once again, history will be the ultimate judge.
For more information on the 13th Amendment please feel free to consult the links below.
National Constitution Centre – Abolition of Slavery
Library of Congress – 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
U.S. Government Publishing Office – Thirteenth Amendment: Slavery and Involuntary Servitude
The Heritage Guide to the Constitution
Yale Law Library – The Avalon Project – U.S. Constitution: Amendments XI – XXVII
Council on Foreign Relations – U.S. Constitution: 13th Amendment
Cover images source: The House Joint Resolution proposing the 13th amendment to the Constitution, January 31, 1865; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1999; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives. Retrieved United States National Archives and Records Administration