“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment XIII – “The Abolition of Slavery”

Illustration celebrating the emancipation of African Americans with the Thirteenth Amendment, c. 1865 (Library of Congress)

Amendment Thirteen to the Constitution – the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments – was ratified on December 6, 1865. It forbids chattel slavery across the United States and in every territory under its control, except as a criminal punishment. The official text is written as follows:

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.

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

The Thirteenth Amendment was the final answer to the question surrounding the institution of slavery in the United States. Up until 1865, slavery was sparingly mentioned in the Constitution. Only the Three-Fifths Compromise, mentioned in Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, made any reference to the way enslaved persons were to be regarded by the federal government, that being as “three-fifths” of a fully free citizen. This was designed to handle the apportionment of the substantial enslaved population across the country, specifically for measuring the number of seats the individual states should have in the House of Representatives. The Fugitive Slave Cause, located in Article IV, Section 2, further asserted that a slave who was bound by the laws of their home state remained slaves wherever they went, even if they fled to a non-slavery state. This was reinforced in the 1857 Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, which undermined the abolitionist’s use of the Fifth Amendment to argue against slavery. Over the first few decades of the United States’ existence, every state in the North had either eliminated slavery entirely, or provided ways for slaves to either be emancipated, or to emancipate themselves. No such offerings were given in the Southern states, where the largest amount of slave labor was concentrated in the country. The spread of slavery, as well as the opposing anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, made it the most pertinent American policy issue in the first half of the 19th century. 

On September 22, 1862 – in the midst of the American Civil War – President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Known officially by the federal government as “Proclamation 95,” the executive order officially rendered all 3.5 million African American slaves living in the secessionist Southern states as free. When these newly-freed slaves fled to the Union states or to American military forces, the slaves were automatically considered free. Additionally, the Proclamation authorized the enlistment of freed African Americans into the United States military. The significance of the Emancipation Proclamation was recognized both at the time of its creation, as well as in historical retrospect. Many historians have since interpreted that the Proclamation shifted the purpose of fighting the war, from only preserving the Union to the additional goal of the total destruction of slavery across the country. Although the Proclamation created a new population of freed peoples, it was designed as a wartime document. The question of if these newly-emancipated slaves would stay free after the Confederacy’s defeat remained unanswered. Slavery was still in effect in four states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) that bordered the Union, and the Union-loyal Restored Government of Virginia – known today as the State of West Virginia – had only just started abolishing slavery by the time of the Proclamation’s issue. President Lincoln and his cabinet were aware that the elimination of slavery had to be legally certified in order to last beyond the war. 

From late 1863 to early 1864, several members of Congress proposed their own versions of a new amendment to abolish slavery. The scope and intensity of the provisions varied depending on the political affiliation of the politician, but they were eventually merged into one proposed amendment by the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 10, 1864. The amendment was subsequently passed through the Senate on April 8, 1864, and then the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865. After its passage through Congress, the new amendment was submitted to the states for approval on February 1. On April 9 in Appomattox County, Virginia, Confederate General in Chief Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Commanding General of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant. This led to a subsequent series of Confederate surrenders across the country, effectively bringing the American Civil War to an end after four years of fighting. President Lincoln’s presidency saw the beginning and the end of the war, but he never lived to see the new amendment be ratified. Five days after the war ended, Lincoln was assassinated by stage actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Andrew Johnson, Vice President to Abraham Lincoln, was subsequently inaugurated as the 17th President of the United States. His first major policy was to finish the amendment’s ratification, as well as bringing the defeated Confederate states back into the Union. On December 6, 1865, the required twenty-seven out of the total thirty-three states ratified the amendment. Twelve days later, the new Thirteenth Amendment was officially certified and accepted into the Constitution. Eighty-nine years after the United States declared independence, chattel slavery was banned and declared illegal in the United States and in its territories.

In addition to the long-term impact of slavery being abolished, the Thirteenth Amendment also restricted several other forms of bound labor and servitude. Both indentured servitude and peonage, the former being a holdover from the colonial era while the latter grew more prominent in the postwar South, were also considered illegal by the new amendment. Peonage would not be officially considered unconstitutional until Bailey v. Alabama in 1911, however. The provision of “slavery” and “indentured servitude” being allowed only as a punishment for a crime has taken place in the centuries since the amendment’s ratification, as both prison labor and temporary government, jury, and military service has taken place to varying extents in different states. Through the 20th and early 21st centuries, the enforcement clause in Section Two of the Thirteenth Amendment has been used to fight racial discrimination in the private sector, public transportation, housing, and more recently in human trafficking. The Thirteenth Amendment was built to solve a problem that had remained unanswered since the country’s founding, and its legacy has allowed for more extensive efforts to revise and review the actions of the past.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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