The 13th Amendment: History and Impact

Black and white etching of slaves freed after the US Civil War
Freed Slaves After US Civil War. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified just months after the end of the American Civil War, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude—except as a punishment for a crime—in the entire United States. As passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, the full text of 13th Amendment reads:

Section One
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.
Section Two
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Along with the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment, the 13th Amendment was the first of the three Reconstruction Period amendments adopted following the Civil War.

Two Centuries of Slavery in America

While the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the U.S. Constitution as originally adopted in 1789 had both stressed liberty and equality as foundations of the American vision, the 13th Amendment of 1865 marked the first explicit mention of slavery in the Constitution.

Since the 1600s, slavery and the slave trade had been legal in all 13 American colonies. Indeed, many of the Founding Fathers, though feeling slavery as wrong, owned slaves. While President Thomas Jefferson signed an Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807, slavery—particularly in the South—flourished until the start of the Civil War in 1861.

As the Civil War began, an estimated 4 million people—almost 13% of the total U.S population at the time—most of them African Americans, were held as slaves in 15 southern and the North-South Border States.

The Emancipation Proclamation’s Slippery Slope

Despite his long-held hatred of slavery, President Abraham Lincoln wavered in dealing with it.

In a last-ditch effort to prevent the Civil War in 1861, then President-elect Lincoln implicitly endorsed the so-called Corwin Amendment, a never-ratified constitutional amendment that would have banned the U.S. government from abolishing slavery in the states where it existed at the time.

By 1863, with the outcome of the Civil War still in doubt, Lincoln decided that freeing the slaves in the South would cripple the economy of the 11 Confederate States and help win the war. His famous Emancipation Proclamation ordered that all slaves held in those states “then in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

However, since it only applied to the areas of the Confederate states not already back under Union control, the Emancipation Proclamation alone failed to end slavery in the United States. Doing so would require a constitutional amendment that abolished and forever banned the institution of slavery.

Passage and Ratification of the 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment’s road to enactment began in April 1864, when the U.S. Senate passed it by the required two-thirds supermajority vote.  However, the amendment hit a roadblock in the House of Representatives, where it faced opposition by a significant number of Democrats who felt that the abolishment of slavery by the federal government would amount to a violation of the rights and powers reserved to the states. As Congress adjourned in July of 1864, with the presidential election looming, the future of the 13th Amendment remained cloudy at best.

With the help of his growing popularity generated by recent Union military victories, Lincoln easily won re-election over his Democratic opponent, General George McClellan. Since the election took place during the Civil War, it was not contested in the states that had seceded from the Union.

By the time Congress reconvened in December of 1864, Republicans, empowered by Lincoln’s landslide victory, made a big push to pass the proposed 13th Amendment. Lincoln himself personally lobbied Union-loyal Border State Democrats to change their “nay” votes to “ayes.” As Lincoln famously reminded his political friends and foes alike, “I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.”

And “procure those votes” they did. On January 31, 1865, the House passed the proposed 13th Amendment by a vote of 119-56, barely over the two-thirds majority required. On February 1, 1865, Lincoln ordered the joint resolution proposing the amendment sent to the states for ratification.

As the end of 1865 approached, nearly all of the Northern states and enough of the already “reconstructed” Southern states had ratified the measure to qualify it for final adoption. 

Tragically assassinated on April 14, 1865, Lincoln did not live to see final ratification of the 13th Amendment, which did not come until December 6, 1865.

The Legacy of the 13th Amendment

Even after the 13th Amendment effectively abolishes slavery, racially-discriminatory measures like the post-Reconstruction Black Codes and the Jim Crow Laws, along with state-sanctioned labor practices like convict leasing, continued to force many black Americans into involuntary labor for years.

Since its adoption, the 13th Amendment has been cited in prohibiting peonage— a system where employers could force workers to pay off debts with work—and some other racially-discriminatory practices by labeling them as “badges and incidents of slavery.”

While the 14th and 15th Amendments apply only to the actions of the government, the 13th Amendment applies to the actions of private citizens. In this manner, the amendment gives Congress the power to enact laws against modern forms of slavery like human trafficking.

Despite the intent and efforts of 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to achieve equality for black Americans, full equality and a guarantee the civil rights of all Americans regardless of race would not be realized until well into the 20th century.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both enacted as part of the “Great Society” social reform program of President Lyndon B. Johnson, are considered to be the turning point in the long struggle for civil rights and racial equality in the United States.

Key Takeaways

  • The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude—except when applied as punishment for a crime—in the entire United States.
  • The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865.
  • Along with the 14th and 15th Amendments, the 13th Amendment was the first of the three Reconstruction Period amendments adopted following the Civil War.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed slaves only in the 11 Confederate states.
  • Unlike the 14th and 15th Amendments, which apply only to the government, the 13th Amendment applies to the actions of private citizens.
  • Despite the 13th Amendment, vestiges of racial discrimination and inequality would continue to exist in America well into the 20th century.   

Sources

  • 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865),” OurDocuments.gov. Online
  • The 13th Amendment: Slavery And Involuntary Servitude,” Constitution Center. Online
  • Foner, Eric, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” W.W. Norton, 2010
  • Crofts, Daniel W, “Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union,” The University of North Carolina Press (April 25, 2016, ISBN 978-1469627311
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” Simon & Schuster (September 26, 2006). ISBN 978-0743270755