On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the required number of states which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. In Congress, it was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward proclaimed its adoption. It was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the American Civil War.
The institution of slavery had existed in all of the original thirteen British North American colonies. Prior to the Thirteenth Amendment, the United States Constitution (adopted in 1789) did not expressly use the words slave or slavery but included several provisions about unfree persons. The Three-Fifths Clause (in Article I, Section 2) allocated Congressional representation based “on the whole Number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons”. This clause was a compromise between Southerners who wished slaves to be counted as “persons” for congressional representation and northerners rejecting these out of concern of too much power for the South, because representation in the new Congress would be based on population in contrast to the one-vote-for-one-state principle in the earlier Continental Congress.
Under the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2), “No person held to Service or Labour in one State” would be freed by escaping to another. Article I, Section 9 allowed Congress to pass legislation outlawing the “Importation of Persons”, but not until 1808. However, for purposes of the Fifth Amendment — which states that, “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”—slaves were understood as property. Although abolitionists used the Fifth Amendment to argue against slavery, it became part of the legal basis for treating slaves as property with Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).
Stimulated by the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence between 1777 and 1804, every Northern state provided for the immediate or gradual abolition of slavery. Most of the slaves involved were household servants. No Southern state did so, and the slave population of the South continued to grow, peaking at almost four million people in 1861. An abolitionist movement headed by such figures as William Lloyd Garrison grew in strength in the North, calling for the end of slavery nationwide and exacerbating tensions between North and South. The American Colonization Society, an alliance between abolitionists who felt the races should be kept separated and slaveholders who feared the presence of freed blacks would encourage slave rebellions, called for the emigration and colonization of both free blacks and slaves to Africa. Its views were endorsed by politicians such as Henry Clay, who feared that the main abolitionist movement would provoke a civil war. Proposals to eliminate slavery by constitutional amendment were introduced by Representative Arthur Livermore in 1818 and by John Quincy Adams in 1839, but failed to gain significant traction.
As the country continued to expand, the issue of slavery in its new territories became the dominant national issue. The Southern position was that slaves were property and therefore could be moved to the territories like all other forms of property. The 1820 Missouri Compromise provided for the admission of Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, preserving the Senate’s equality between the regions. In 1846, the Wilmot Proviso was introduced to a war appropriations bill to ban slavery in all territories acquired in the Mexican–American War; the Proviso repeatedly passed the House, but not the Senate. The Compromise of 1850 temporarily defused the issue by admitting California as a free state, instituting a stronger Fugitive Slave Act, banning the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and allowing New Mexico and Utah self-determination on the slavery issue.
Despite the compromise, tensions between North and South continued to rise over the subsequent decade, inflamed by, amongst other things, the publication of the 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; fighting between pro-slave and abolitionist forces in Kansas, beginning in 1854; the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which struck down provisions of the Compromise of 1850; abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 attempt to start a slave revolt at Harpers Ferry and the 1860 election of slavery critic Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. The Southern states seceded from the Union in the months following Lincoln’s election, forming the Confederate States of America, and beginning the American Civil War.
Acting under presidential war powers, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which proclaimed the freedom of slaves in the ten states that were still in rebellion. However, it did not affect the status of slaves in the border states that had remained loyal to the Union. That December, Lincoln again used his war powers and issued a “Proclamation for Amnesty and Reconstruction”, which offered Southern states a chance to peacefully rejoin the Union if they abolished slavery and collected loyalty oaths from 10% of their voting population. Southern states did not readily accept the deal, and the status of slavery remained uncertain.
In the final years of the Civil War, Union lawmakers debated various proposals for Reconstruction. Some of these called for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery nationally and permanently. On December 14, 1863, a bill proposing such an amendment was introduced by Representative James Mitchell Ashley of Ohio. Representative James F. Wilson of Iowa soon followed with a similar proposal. On January 11, 1864, Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri submitted a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, became involved in merging different proposals for an amendment.
Radical Republicans led by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens sought a more expansive version of the amendment. On February 8, 1864, Sumner submitted a constitutional amendment stating:
“All persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave; and the Congress shall have power to make all laws necessary and proper to carry this declaration into effect everywhere in the United States.”
Sumner tried to promote his own more expansive wording by circumventing the Trumbull-controlled Judiciary Committee, but failed. On February 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee presented the Senate with an amendment proposal based on drafts of Ashley, Wilson and Henderson.
The Committee’s version used text from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which stipulates, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Though using Henderson’s proposed amendment as the basis for its new draft, the Judiciary Committee removed language that would have allowed a constitutional amendment to be adopted with only a majority vote in each House of Congress and ratification by two-thirds of the states (instead of two-thirds and three-fourths, respectively).
The Senate passed the amendment on April 8, 1864, by a vote of 38 to 6; two Democrats, Reverdy Johnson of Maryland and James Nesmith of Oregon voted “aye.” However, just over two months later on June 15, the House failed to do so, with 93 in favor and 65 against, thirteen votes short of the two-thirds vote needed for passage; the vote split largely along party lines, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing. In the 1864 presidential race, former Free Soil Party candidate John C. Frémont threatened a third-party run opposing Lincoln, this time on a platform endorsing an anti-slavery amendment. The Republican Party platform had, as yet, failed to include a similar plank, though Lincoln endorsed the amendment in a letter accepting his nomination. Fremont withdrew from the race on September 22, 1864 and endorsed Lincoln.
With no Southern states represented, few members of Congress pushed moral and religious arguments in favor of slavery. Democrats who opposed the amendment generally made arguments based on federalism and states’ rights. Some argued that the proposed change so violated the spirit of the Constitution that it would not be a valid “amendment” but would instead constitute “revolution”. Representative White, among other opponents, warned that the amendment would lead to full citizenship for blacks.
Republicans portrayed slavery as uncivilized and argued for abolition as a necessary step in national progress. Amendment supporters also argued that the slave system had negative effects on white people. These included the lower wages resulting from competition with forced labor, as well as repression of abolitionist whites in the South. Advocates said ending slavery would restore the First Amendment and other constitutional rights violated by censorship and intimidation in slave states.
White Northern Republicans, and some Democrats, became excited about an abolition amendment, holding meetings and issuing resolutions. Many blacks, particularly in the South, focused more on landownership and education as the key to liberation. As slavery began to seem politically untenable, an array of Northern Democrats successively announced their support for the amendment, including Representative James Brooks, Senator Reverdy Johnson, and Tammany Hall, a powerful New York political machine.
President Lincoln had had concerns that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 might be reversed or found invalid after the war. He saw constitutional amendment as a more permanent solution. He had remained outwardly neutral on the amendment because he considered it politically too dangerous. Nonetheless, Lincoln’s 1864 party platform resolved to abolish slavery by constitutional amendment. After winning the election of 1864, Lincoln made the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment his top legislative priority, beginning his efforts while the “lame duck” session was still in office. Popular support for the amendment mounted and Lincoln urged Congress on in his December 6 State of the Union speech: “there is only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States for their action. And as it is to so go, at all events, may we not agree that the sooner the better?”
Lincoln instructed Secretary of State William H. Seward, Representative John B. Alley and others to procure votes by any means necessary, and they promised government posts and campaign contributions to outgoing Democrats willing to switch sides. Seward had a large fund for direct bribes. Ashley, who reintroduced the measure into the House, also lobbied several Democrats to vote in favor of the measure. Representative Thaddeus Stevens commented later that “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”; however, Lincoln’s precise role in making deals for votes remains unknown.
Republicans in Congress claimed a mandate for abolition, having gained in the elections for Senate and House. The 1864 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Representative George H. Pendleton, led opposition to the measure. Republicans toned down their language of radical equality in order to broaden the amendment’s coalition of supporters. In order to reassure critics worried that the amendment would tear apart the social fabric, some Republicans explicitly promised that the amendment would leave patriarchy intact.
In mid-January 1865, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax estimated the amendment to be five votes short of passage. Ashley postponed the vote. At this point, Lincoln intensified his push for the amendment, making direct emotional appeals to particular members of Congress. On January 31, 1865, the House called another vote on the amendment, with neither side being certain of the outcome. With 183 House members present, 122 would have to vote “aye” to secure passage of the resolution; however eight members abstained, reducing the number to 117. Every Republican supported the measure, as well as 16 Democrats, almost all of them lame ducks. The amendment finally passed by a vote of 119 to 56, narrowly reaching the required two-thirds majority. The House exploded into celebration, with some members openly weeping. Black onlookers, who had only been allowed to attend Congressional sessions since the previous year, cheered from the galleries.
While under the Constitution, the President plays no formal role in the amendment process, the joint resolution was sent to Lincoln for his signature. Under the usual signatures of the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, President Lincoln wrote the word “Approved” and added his signature to the joint resolution on February 1, 1865. On February 7, Congress passed a resolution affirming that the Presidential signature was unnecessary. The Thirteenth Amendment is the only ratified amendment signed by a President, although James Buchanan had signed the Corwin Amendment that the 36th Congress had adopted and sent to the states in March 1861.
When the Thirteenth Amendment was submitted to the states on February 1, 1865, it was quickly taken up by several legislatures. By the end of the month it had been ratified by eighteen states. Among them were the ex-Confederate states of Virginia and Louisiana, where ratifications were submitted by Reconstruction governments. These, along with subsequent ratifications from Arkansas and Tennessee raised the issues of how many seceded states had legally valid legislatures; and if there were fewer legislatures than states, if Article V required ratification by three-fourths of the states or three-fourths of the legally valid state legislatures. President Lincoln in his last speech, on April 11, 1865, called the question about whether the Southern states were in or out of the Union a “pernicious abstraction.” Obviously, he declared, they were not “in their proper practical relation with the Union”; whence everyone’s object should be to restore that relation. Lincoln was assassinated three days later.
With Congress out of session, the new President, Andrew Johnson, began a period known as “Presidential Reconstruction”, in which he personally oversaw the creation of new state governments throughout the South. He oversaw the convening of state political conventions populated by delegates whom he deemed to be loyal. Three leading issues came before the convention: secession itself, the abolition of slavery, and the Confederate war debt. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina held conventions in 1865, while Texas’ convention did not organize until March 1866. Johnson hoped to prevent deliberation over whether to re-admit the Southern states by accomplishing full ratification before Congress reconvened in December. He believed he could silence those who wished to deny the Southern states their place in the Union by pointing to how essential their assent had been to the successful ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Direct negotiations between state governments and the Johnson administration ensued. As the summer wore on, administration officials began including assurances of the measure’s limited scope with their demands for ratification. Johnson himself suggested directly to the governors of Mississippi and North Carolina that they could proactively control the allocation of rights to freedmen. Though Johnson obviously expected the freed people to enjoy at least some civil rights, including, as he specified, the right to testify in court, he wanted state lawmakers to know that the power to confer such rights would remain with the states. When South Carolina provisional governor Benjamin Franklin Perry objected to the scope of the amendment’s enforcement clause, Secretary of State Seward responded by telegraph that in fact the second clause “is really restraining in its effect, instead of enlarging the powers of Congress”. White politicians throughout the South were concerned that Congress might cite the amendment’s enforcement powers as a way to authorize black suffrage.
When South Carolina ratified the amendment in November 1865, it issued its own interpretive declaration that “any attempt by Congress toward legislating upon the political status of former slaves, or their civil relations, would be contrary to the Constitution of the United States”. Alabama and Louisiana also declared that their ratification did not imply federal power to legislate on the status of former slaves. During the first week of December, North Carolina and Georgia gave the amendment the final votes needed for it to become part of the Constitution.
The Thirteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution on December 6, 1865, based on the following ratifications:
- Illinois — February 1, 1865
- Rhode Island — February 2, 1865
- Michigan — February 3, 1865
- Maryland — February 3, 1865
- New York — February 3, 1865
- Pennsylvania — February 3, 1865
- West Virginia — February 3, 1865
- Missouri — February 6, 1865
- Maine — February 7, 1865
- Kansas — February 7, 1865
- Massachusetts — February 7, 1865
- Virginia — February 9, 1865
- Ohio — February 10, 1865
- Indiana — February 13, 1865
- Nevada — February 16, 1865
- Louisiana — February 17, 1865
- Minnesota — February 23, 1865
- Wisconsin — February 24, 1865
- Vermont — March 8, 1865
- Tennessee — April 7, 1865
- Arkansas — April 14, 1865
- Connecticut — May 4, 1865
- New Hampshire — July 1, 1865
- South Carolina — November 13, 1865
- Alabama — December 2, 1865
- North Carolina — December 4, 1865
- Georgia — December 6, 1865
Having been ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states (27 of the 36 states, including those that had been in rebellion), Secretary of State Seward, on December 18, 1865, certified that the Thirteenth Amendment had become valid, to all intents and purposes, as a part of the Constitution. Included on the enrolled list of ratifying states were the three ex-Confederate states that had given their assent, but with strings attached. Seward accepted their affirmative votes and brushed aside their interpretive declarations without comment, challenge or acknowledgment.
The Thirteenth Amendment was subsequently ratified by:
- Oregon — December 8, 1865
- California — December 19, 1865
- Florida — December 28, 1865 (Reaffirmed – June 9, 1869)
- Iowa — January 15, 1866
- New Jersey — January 23, 1866 (After rejection – March 16, 1865)
- Texas — February 18, 1870
- Delaware — February 12, 1901 (After rejection – February 8, 1865)
- Kentucky — March 18, 1976 (After rejection – February 24, 1865)
- Mississippi — March 16, 1995; Certified – February 7, 2013 (After rejection – December 5, 1865)
The Thirteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution 61 years after the Twelfth Amendment. This is the longest interval between constitutional amendments.
The impact of the abolition of slavery was felt quickly. When the Thirteenth Amendment became operational, the scope of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was widened to include the entire nation. Although the majority of Kentucky’s slaves had been emancipated, 65,000–100,000 people remained to be legally freed when the Amendment went into effect on December 18. In Delaware, where a large number of slaves had escaped during the war, nine hundred people became legally free.
In addition to abolishing slavery and prohibiting involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, the Thirteenth Amendment also nullified the Fugitive Slave Clause and the Three-Fifths Compromise. The population of a state originally included (for congressional apportionment purposes) all “free persons”, three-fifths of “other persons” (i.e., slaves) and excluded untaxed Native Americans. The Three-Fifths Compromise was a provision in the Constitution that required three-fifths of the population of slaves be counted for purposes of apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives and taxes among the states. This compromise had the effect of increasing the political power of slave-holding states by increasing their share of seats in the House of Representatives, and consequently their share in the Electoral College (where a state’s influence over the election of the President is tied to the size of its congressional delegation).
Even as the Thirteenth Amendment was working its way through the ratification process, Republicans in Congress grew increasingly concerned about the potential for there to be a large increase in the congressional representation of the Democratic-dominated Southern states. Because the full population of freed slaves would be counted rather than three-fifths, the Southern states would dramatically increase their power in the population-based House of Representatives. Republicans hoped to offset this advantage by attracting and protecting votes of the newly enfranchised black population.
Southern culture remained deeply racist, and those blacks who remained faced a dangerous situation. J. J. Gries reported to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction: “There is a kind of innate feeling, a lingering hope among many in the South that slavery will be regalvanized in some shape or other. They tried by their laws to make a worse slavery than there was before, for the freedman has not the protection which the master from interest gave him before.” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1935:
“Slavery was not abolished even after the Thirteenth Amendment. There were four million freedmen and most of them on the same plantation, doing the same work that they did before emancipation, except as their work had been interrupted and changed by the upheaval of war. Moreover, they were getting about the same wages and apparently were going to be subject to slave codes modified only in name. There were among them thousands of fugitives in the camps of the soldiers or on the streets of the cities, homeless, sick, and impoverished. They had been freed practically with no land nor money, and, save in exceptional cases, without legal status, and without protection.”
Official emancipation did not substantially alter the economic situation of most blacks who remained in the south.
As the amendment still permitted labor as punishment for convicted criminals, Southern states responded with what historian Douglas A. Blackmon called “an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize black life”. These laws, passed or updated after emancipation, were known as Black Codes. Mississippi was the first state to pass such codes, with an 1865 law titled “An Act to confer Civil Rights on Freedmen”. The Mississippi law required black workers to contract with white farmers by January 1 of each year or face punishment for vagrancy. Blacks could be sentenced to forced labor for crimes including petty theft, using obscene language, or selling cotton after sunset. States passed new, strict vagrancy laws that were selectively enforced against blacks without white protectors. The labor of these convicts was then sold to farms, factories, lumber camps, quarries, and mines.
After its ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in November 1865, the South Carolina legislature immediately began to legislate Black Codes. The Black Codes created a separate set of laws, punishments, and acceptable behaviors for anyone with more than one black great-grandparent. Under these Codes, Blacks could only work as farmers or servants and had few Constitutional rights. Restrictions on black land ownership threatened to make economic subservience permanent.
Some states mandated indefinitely long periods of child “apprenticeship”. Some laws did not target Blacks specifically, but instead affected farm workers, most of whom were Black. At the same time, many states passed laws to actively prevent Blacks from acquiring property.
In contrast to the other Reconstruction Amendments, the Thirteenth Amendment was rarely cited in later case law, but has been used to strike down peonage and some race-based discrimination as “badges and incidents of slavery”. The Thirteenth Amendment applies to the actions of private citizens, while the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments apply only to state actors. The amendment also enables Congress to pass laws against sex trafficking and other modern forms of slavery.
Scott #902. a 3-cent deep violet stamp, was issued on October 20, 1940, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment. Perforated 10½x11, the stamp’s design reproduces the bronze sculpture by Thomas Ball, paid by voluntary subscriptions from emancipated slaves, which depicts Abraham Lincoln presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to a black man. The statue stands in Lincoln Park in the District of Columbia.