What is the 13th Amendment? A Simple Explanation
The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified on December 18, 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude within the United States, except as a punishment for a crime.
13th Amendment Summary
The 13th Amendment emerged against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which was caused, in part, by the sectional divide over the issue of slavery.
As the war escalated, the cry to abolish slavery grew, particularly in the North. President Abraham Lincoln responded by issuing his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In it, he declared slaves in the Confederate States and territories considered to be in rebellion against the United States to be free.
By December, Congress was working to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to ban slavery in the United States. Following the Presidential Election of 1864, Congress passed the 13th Amendment and it was sent to the states for ratification.
Georgia was the 27th state to ratify the 13th Amendment and it became law on December 18, 1865. Sadly, President Lincoln did not live to see the historic event, as he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in April.
The 13th Amendment solidified the proclamation’s intent and significance by constitutionally prohibiting the practice of slavery. The amendment’s concise wording encompasses two sections: the first unequivocally ends slavery, while the second grants Congress the power to enforce the amendment through appropriate legislation.
The amendment’s passage marked a pivotal step towards securing civil rights for African Americans, though continued struggles against racial discrimination persisted, leading to subsequent legislative measures and, eventually, the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.
13th Amendment Facts
1. The 13th Amendment is the first time the U.S. Constitution explicitly mentioned slavery.
2. Although many Founding Fathers believed slavery was morally wrong, they still owned slaves.
3. When the Civil War started, there were roughly 4 million enslaved people in the United States. Most were of African descent, living in the Southern States and the Border States.
4. The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in territories “then in rebellion against the United States.”
5. The Senate approved the 13th Amendment on April 8, 1864.
6. President Lincoln authorized his political allies to offer bribes to members of the House of Representatives in order to secure their votes in favor of the 13th Amendment.
7. The Hampton Roads Conference, a secret meeting with Confederate officials, put the vote in the House in jeopardy.
8. The House approved the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865.
9. The 13th Amendment was the first Reconstruction Amendment and was followed by the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment.
10. Mississippi did not adopt the 13th Amendment until 1995 and did not submit its documentation to the U.S. Archivist until February 7, 2013.
13th Amendment History
At its beginning, many leaders on both sides of the American Civil War painted the conflict as primarily a political conflict. For more than 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 with the Battle of Fort Sumter, 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 B. McClellan and his 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 that 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.
Lincoln Prepares the Emancipation Proclamation
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 the suggestion of Secretary of State William H. Seward that the president should not publicly disclose his decision until a major Union military victory could give it backbone.
Battle of Antietam
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.
Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation
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.
Lincoln Signs the Final Version of the Emancipation Proclamation
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.
Anti-Slavery Congressmen Call for Universal Emancipation
As early as December 1863, Ohio Republican Congressman James Ashley proposed a constitutional amendment to ban slavery in the United States. Ashley was a member of the faction within the Republican Party known as the Radical Republicans.
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.
Lincoln Nominated for a Second Term as President
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.
The 13th Amendment is Rejected by the House of Representatives
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.
Lincoln Wins the Presidential Election of 1864
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 of 1864.
With the victory, 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 House of Representatives Approves the 13th Amendment
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.
13th Amendment Ratification
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.
What Does the 13th Amendment Do?
Modeled after the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment is relatively concise.
In two brief sections, the text of the amendment 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.
13th Amendment and Civil Rights
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 legislation in 1866 and 1867 to protect the civil rights of African-Americans.
13th Amendment Legacy
Continued Southern resistance eventually led to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment to ensure due process, equal protection, and voting rights for African Americans. However, even these measures proved ineffective and blacks suffered another century of racial oppression known as the Jim Crow Era.
Conditions improved after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s culminated with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, challenges still remain.
13th Amendment Dates and Timeline
December 1863 — Ohio Republican Congressman James Ashley proposes a constitutional amendment to ban slavery in the United States.
January 1864 — Missouri Senator John B. Henderson introduces a joint congressional resolution to abolish slavery.
February 11, 1864 — Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull guides a bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee that will become the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
March 28, 1864 — Trumbull introduces a proposal for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in the United States to the full Senate.
April 8, 1864 — By a vote of 38–6, the Senate approves Trumbull’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in the United States.
June 15, 1864 — By a vote of 93–65, the House of Representatives rejects the proposed amendment.
November 1864 — Abraham Lincoln is re-elected.
January 31, 1865 — By a vote of 119–56 the House of Representatives endorses the Thirteenth Amendment.
February 1, 1865 — Illinois is the first state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment.
February 9, 1865 — Virginia ratifies the Thirteenth Amendment.
April 14, 1865 — John Wilkes Booth shoots President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
December 6, 1865 — The Thirteenth Amendment reaches the constitutionally required three-fourths majority when Georgia becomes the 27th state to ratify it.
December 18, 1865 — Secretary of State William Seward verifies the ratification results and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution becomes law.
13th Amendment APUSH Notes and Study Guide
Use the following links and videos to study the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Civil War for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.
13th Amendment Definition APUSH
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which was adopted in 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. The amendment, which was ratified shortly after the end of the Civil War, was a major achievement of the Reconstruction Era and is considered to be a key moment in the history of the United States. The amendment, which was the first of the Reconstruction Amendments, marked the end of the institution of slavery in the United States and set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century.
13th Amendment Video for APUSH Notes
This video from Adam Norris discusses the 13th Amendment for the AP US history exam.