The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the states on December 6, 1865. The amendment reads –
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 13th Amendment abolished both slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the nation and gave Congress the power to enforce the Amendment by “appropriate legislation.”
At the outset of the Civil War, few could imagine such a revolutionary amendment. In 1861, President Lincoln’s aim during the war was not to disrupt the South’s system of slavery, but instead to reunite the fractured nation.
By the summer of 1862, though, with mounting deaths and desertions and declining enlistments of white soldiers, the President reconsidered his position.
By the end of the war, more than 186,000 black men had enlisted in Lincoln’s army, some 134,000 of whom came from slave-holding states. Some were freed blacks who had made lives for themselves in the South, but many more were slaves who, when troops marched through the Confederacy, took it upon themselves to claim their freedom and sign up for the Union cause.
And as black soldiers entered the military, the relationship between the war and the institution of slavery became more intertwined. As Lincoln saw it, with the inclusion of African-Americans in the conflict, the fight had become defined by the question of slavery.
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which read –
By the President of the United States of America:
Whereas, on the twentysecond day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
“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.
“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”
Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Johns, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South-Carolina, North-Carolina, and Virginia, (except the fortyeight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth-City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.
By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.
The proclamation was largely a military gesture, and it only freed slaves in the Confederacy, where Lincoln had no control. And yet, as historian Eric Foner describes, the symbolic proclamation had real effect –
“[N]ever before had so large a number of slaves been declared free. By making the army an agent of emancipation and wedding the goals of Union and abolition, it ensured that northern victory would produce a social transformation in the South and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American life.”
Nearly a year later, in mid-December 1863 Congressman James Ashley of Ohio introduced a bill supporting a federal prohibition on slavery. A month later, in January 1864, Missouri Senator John Henderson submitted a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment.
The Senate, dominated by Republicans, passed the amendment on April 3, 1864, but the amendment languished in the House of Representatives, where many Democrats rallied against the amendment for encroaching on the rights of the states. Because the amendment was not confined in its reach to the federal government, but instead extended to both the states and individual citizens, many Democrats feared it too greatly expanded the powers of the federal government.
The election of 1864 secured Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. And on January 31, 1865, the 13th amendment passed the House by a vote of 119 to 56, seven votes above the needed two-thirds majority vote for a constitutional amendment.
The amendment was then sent to the states for ratification and was ratified on December 6, 1865, when Georgia voted to ratify the Amendment.
And so today we mark the 151st anniversary of the formal abolition of slavery in the United States of America.