Approved by Congress on January 31, 1865 and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the practice of slavery in the United States (except as a punishment for crime), and bestowed Congress with broad powers to ensure the amendment's enforcement.
At its beginning, many leaders on both sides of the American Civil War painted the conflict as primarily a political conflict. For over fifty years, sectional differences over the extension of slavery in the United States created a schism between the North and the South. Gradually, the divide became too deep for the two sides could no longer peacefully coexist. When Southern states began leaving the Union on December 20, 1860, their secessionist leaders asserted that they were exercising their inherent right to leave an alliance of states based on the “consent of the governed.” Unionists, including president-elect Abraham Lincoln, depicted the conflict as a rebellion against the United States government. For them, the war was about preserving the Union.
When war erupted in April 1861, many believed that the conflict, like other early American rebellions (e.g., Shays’ Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, Fries’s Rebellion, and the Dorr Rebellion) would be short-lived. Their reasoning was that the new Confederacy of Southern states stood little chance of competing against the industrial might of the more densely populated North.
Despite an embarrassing defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, predictions of an early Union victory seemed accurate by June 1862. With Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac camped within sight of the church spires of Richmond, the fall of the Confederate capital seemed inevitable. Union battlefield reversals soon proved that conclusion to be incorrect, and both sides settled in for a protracted conflict.
First Confiscation Act
As the war dragged on, Federal officials stepped up their efforts to deprive the Confederacy of services being rendered by slaves. As early as August 6, 1861, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act conferring “contraband” status on slaves being used to support the Confederate war effort. In effect, the bill made slaves captured by Union armies the property of the U. S. government, much like any other contraband captured during combat.
On March 13, 1862, Congress strengthened the intent of the First Confiscation Act by enacting an article of war that stated:
All officers or persons in the military or naval service of the United States are prohibited from employing any of the forces under their respective commands for the purpose of returning fugitives from service or labor, who may have escaped from any persons to whom such service or labor is claimed to be due, and any officer who shall be found guilty by a court-martial of violating this article shall be dismissed from the service.
Second Confiscation Act
On July 17, 1862, Congress passed a Second Confiscation Act. Applicable only in areas occupied by Union armies, the new measure required individuals in rebellion against the United States to surrender within 60 days of the legislation’s enactment. The act provided that slaves owned by those failing to comply were to “be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.” The law inched closer to general emancipation by further specifying the no fugitive slave “shall be delivered up . . . unless the person claiming said fugitive shall first make oath” to be the “lawful owner” and that the claimant was not in rebellion against the United States.
As the Union’s fortunes on the battlefield languished, the claim that emancipation would strengthen the federal war effort became increasingly compelling. By early July, President Lincoln was already drafting a presidential proclamation for general emancipation. At a cabinet meeting on July 22, 1862, the president formally introduced the idea. Lincoln supported emancipation as
a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.
The only item open to discussion was the timing of the announcement of the president’s decision. Lincoln agreed with Secretary of State William H. Seward’s suggestion that the president should not publicly disclose his decision until a major Union military victory could give it backbone.
The president had to wait nearly two months for the battlefield success he needed. On September 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia engaged each other near Sharpsburg, Maryland. In the bloodiest single day of fighting in the American Civil War, the Battle of Antietam ended in a tactical draw. Still, the Union could claim a strategic victory when Confederate General Robert E. Lee withdrew his forces from Maryland two days after the battle. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln signed the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Calling upon his authority as President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, Lincoln proclaimed:
That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the final version of his executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation. The final draft freed few, if any, slaves since it applied only to areas in rebellion, where the government had no effective authority. Although applauded by many abolitionists, the document did not go far enough to appease others who had clamored for blanket emancipation since before the Civil War began. Some, including Lincoln, had concerns about how the courts would interpret the constitutionality of the order, especially after the war ended. Gradually, they came to insist that the only ironclad means to rid the nation of slavery forever was to amend the Constitution.
Calls for Universal Emancipation
As early as December 1863, Ohio Republican Congressman James Ashley proposed a constitutional amendment to ban slavery in the United States. In January 1864, Missouri Senator John B. Henderson introduced a joint congressional resolution to abolish slavery. A month later, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner recommended similar legislation. On February 11, 1864, Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull guided a bill through the judiciary committee that eventually was to become the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Trumbull introduced the proposal on the floor on March 28. After less than two weeks of debate, on April 8, the Senate approved Sumner’s bill 38–6, a margin of eight votes more than the constitutionally required two-thirds majority.
On June 7, a coalition of mainstream Republicans and War Democrats, known as the National Union Party, met in Baltimore and nominated President Lincoln for a second term. The party’s platform included a plank calling for the “utter and complete extirpation” of slavery “from the soil of the Republic.” To build party unity and bolster support for the war, the delegates nominated a War Democrat, former Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson, for vice-president. Johnson’s presence on the ticket apparently did little to arouse support for abolition among Democratic Congressmen. A week later, on June 15, the House rejected a measure identical to the Senate resolution to free the slaves. The vote of 93 yeas to 65 nays failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority for proposals to amend the Constitution. Indicative of the partisan split over the resolution, only four Democrats voted in favor of it.
On November 8, 1864, President Lincoln received a vote of confidence from the American electorate, easily defeating Democratic challenger George B. McClellan in the presidential election. Lincoln interpreted his reelection as a mandate for abolition. Referring to the election results during his annual message to Congress on December 6, Lincoln contended that “It is the voice of the people now for the first time heard upon the question.” Arguing that the “intervening election shows almost certainly that the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not,” Lincoln urged the lame-duck Congress to reconsider the “passage of the measure at the present session.” The members of the House did more than reconsider. On January 31, 1865, by a vote of 119–56 (two votes more than the constitutionally required two-thirds majority) they endorsed the proposed Thirteenth Amendment.
The ratification process began nearly immediately. On February 1, 1865, Lincoln’s adopted home state of Illinois became the first state to ratify the proposed amendment. By the end of the month, seventeen more states had followed suit. On February 9, Virginia became the first former Confederate state to ratify. On April 14, the day John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln, Arkansas became the twenty-first state to approve the amendment. The proposal reached the constitutionally required three-fourths majority on December 6, 1865, when Georgia became the twenty-seventh state to ratify. Secretary of State William Seward verified the ratification results on December 18 and the proposal officially became the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Modeled after the Northwest Ordinance, the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment is relatively concise. In two brief sections it succinctly states:
Section 1. 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 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The language of the first section left little doubt that the practice of slavery (with one exception) was a thing of the past in the United States.
Section two, often referred to as the Enforcement Clause gave Congress broad powers to secure the end of slavery.
Former slaves soon discovered that emancipation was not the same as freedom from racial discrimination. When southern politicians began developing Black Codes to oppress them, Congress quickly used the authority granted in the Thirteenth Amendment to enact a bevy of legislation in 1866 and 1867 to protect the civil rights of African-Americans.
Continued southern resistance eventually led to the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to ensure due process, equal protection, and voting rights for African Americans. Even these measures proved ineffective and blacks suffered another century of racial oppression known as the Jim Crow Era.
Conditions improved dramatically after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s culminated with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but racial discrimination remains a major challenge in modern America.