Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

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2 Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Ratified by the required three-fourths of states on
December 18, 1865

Reprinted on GPO Access: Constitution of the United States
(Web site)

Slavery is outlawed in the United States

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.…"

The most obvious result of the American Civil War (1861–65) was the elimination of slavery. But that was not the original goal of President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) and it was not achieved all at once. The end to forced labor came in phases, as Lincoln and Congress adopted measures to take slaves away from the Confederacy and enlist African Americans in the Northern effort to win the war.

Lincoln had always hated slavery, but at first he did not think the federal government could eliminate a form of servitude that had been preserved in the Constitution, the document establishing the country's legal framework. In creating the congressional districts based on population, the authors of the Constitution decided in 1787 that each slave should count as three-fifths of a person, a concept known as the "three-fifths compromise." This deal pleased Southerners, who wanted slaves counted because they would boost the number of congressional seats in the South; and it satisfied Northerners, who did not think slaves should count as full people because they did not vote or pay taxes. The compromise was firmly fixed in the Constitution—proof that slavery was not only legal when the country was founded, but that early leaders had created a legal concept of African Americans as inferior people.

When the intensifying debate over slavery prompted the Southern states to pull out of the Union in 1861 and form the Confederate States of America, Lincoln clearly stated that his goal was to unify the country. At first he did not talk of freeing the slaves, as he feared it would make the South less likely to rejoin the Union. But as the war dragged on, Lincoln realized most Southerners were unlikely to surrender. In the meantime, the Confederacy had the strength of millions of slaves digging trenches, building forts, and tilling the fields (working the soil), freeing the hands of more white men to serve as soldiers. As noted in African Americans and Civil Rights, Northerners increasingly believed "that Southerners should pay the price of secession [leaving the Union] by losing their slaves" and "that ex-slaves then should share the burden of battle."

Congress passed the First Confiscation Act in 1861, allowing Union troops to take any property (including slaves) helping the Confederate cause. Although the act still treated slaves as property, it gave African Americans the hope of freedom if they were taken by Union troops. Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act in 1862, freeing the slaves belonging to anyone supporting the Southern "rebellion" against the North. Lincoln followed with the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed all three million slaves in the Confederacy—but not in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia, the border states that had stayed in the Union. Lincoln did not want to alienate those loyal states by including their one million slaves in the Emancipation Proclamation.

The North had little power to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, as it applied to the Southern states that considered themselves a separate country. But the promise of freedom inspired thousands of slaves to escape to the North to help the Union win the war. At this time the North opened its military ranks to African Americans, a historic move. According to African Americans and Civil Rights, of the 108,000 African Americans who served in the Union army during the war, about three-fourths came from slave states. Other ex-slaves built roads, bridges, and forts for the North. Fugitives such as William A. Jackson, the carriage driver for Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), provided valuable information to the North about the South's military plans and assets.

A year before the war ended, Congress drafted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to permanently outlaw slavery. Adding a new rule, or amendment, to the Constitution is a two-step process. At least two-thirds of the Senate and the House of Representatives must vote in favor of the amendment. Then it must be ratified, or approved, by at least three-fourths of the state governments. The Thirteenth Amendment passed in the Senate on April 8, 1864, but the House of Representatives could not gather a two-thirds majority to approve it. Republican members of Congress spent months trying to convince their Democratic opponents that the public supported an end to slavery. When the House of Representatives took another vote on January 31, 1865, the amendment passed 199 to 56—with just two votes over the two-thirds majority needed to pass. African Americans gathered at the Capitol for this historic vote hugged each other and cried tears of joy, as noted in Ordeal by Fire. Republicans cheered and congratulated each other. The members of the House voted to take the rest of the day off in honor of the important event.

Things to remember while reading the Thirteenth Amendment:

  • The end to slavery came in several steps. Congress passed laws during the Civil War allowing the North to take slaves used by Southern troops. In 1863, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederacy, but not in the states that stayed in the Union. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution finally outlawed slavery completely.
  • While it was nearly impossible for Union troops to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation in Confederate territory, the promise of freedom inspired thousands of slaves to flee to the North, where they played an important role in winning the war. African Americans joined the Army, built forts and roads for the North, and provided information about the South to military leaders, all with the hope that a Union victory would mean an end to slavery.
  • The Constitution is the legal framework for the U.S. government. Until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, reprinted here from the GPO Access: Constitution of the United States Web site, the Constitution legally recognized slavery under the "three-fifths compromise," a provision that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person when creating congressional districts based on population.

Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Section 1. Neither slavery norinvoluntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have beenduly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to theirjurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce thisarticle by appropriate legislation.

What happened next …

Every Northern state but New Jersey approved the Thirteenth Amendment in the spring of 1865. The border states of Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia ratified it; but Kentucky and Delaware did not. Other Southern states approved the amendment before the end of the year as part of the requirements to return to the Union as set forth by President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69). But they did so grudgingly: Alabama amended its state constitution to say it would not give Congress "the power to legislate upon the political status [rights] of freedmen [freed slaves] in this state," according to Black Voices from Reconstruction. Mississippi outlawed slavery in its state constitution, but rejected the Thirteenth Amendment on the grounds that it could give Congress an excuse to interfere with state decisions on African Americans' rights. Even with such protests, the measure ending slavery officially became part of the Constitution on December 18, 1865.

In the meantime, the surrender of the Confederate troops in April 1865 also signaled an end of slavery, as the Union would now enforce Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau (see Chapter 4) to help African Americans make the transition to freedom. Former slaves left plantations by the thousands to search for lost relatives, visit new places, or find better jobs in the cities. But they were not entirely free. Union major-general Francis J. Herron (1837–1902) feared this mass departure of African Americans from the plantations would leave the season's crops to die, creating starvation for thousands and financial ruin for an already-devastated South. In a June 11, 1865,

A Liberian Life

For decades before and after the Civil War, some of the freed slaves left America for a land of their own: Liberia. The small country on Africa's west coast started as a colony in the 1820s where ex-slaves could set up their own society. The theory, shared by the U.S. whites who founded the colony, was that African Americans would succeed faster in their own country than in a white America (although many African Americans preferred to stay in the states). In reality, however, Liberia would travel down a similar racist path as the United States.

The colony, named for the liberty it offered African Americans, passed a constitution and other laws in 1825 prohibiting slavery or any participation in the slave trade. Its early ties to America were strong. It modeled its declaration of independence and its flag after those of the United States. The capital city of Monrovia was named after the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe (1758–1831; served 1817–25). Virginia, Maryland, and Mississippi established settlements in Liberia for some former slaves. In some cases prior to the Civil War, slaves were only freed if they agreed to move to Liberia.

Over time, two distinct groups emerged: the Americo-Liberians, who were the freed slaves from America, and native Africans from neighboring areas. The Americo-Liberians forced the natives to work on their plantations and sometimes sold those workers to other countries. They also drafted discriminatory laws, much like the ones the ex-slaves faced in America: The natives could not vote or attend school, and they were restricted to inferior hospitals and less-desirable jobs.

Many of those restrictions were lifted by the mid-1900s, but decades of tension between different factions led to a bloody coup (overthrow of the government) in 1980, followed by a civil war from 1989 to 1996. After the war, much of the country lacked decent roads, jobs, or medical care, and various groups struggled for control of the government. Even then, many Liberians pointed to slavery as the heart of their problems. "We cannot blame the Americans for teaching us slavery," Liberian community leader Mary Brunell told the Christian Science Monitor. "As for America," she said, "we could have taken the best from them. We took the worst. We could have risen above slavery, but we didn't, and that is the crux [source] of our problems."

proclamation for the Northern Division of Louisiana, Herron required all ex-slaves to stay with their former masters through the end of the crop season. "If found wandering about the country or gathering at military posts they will be arrested and punished," read Herron's order, which was reprinted in Out of the Storm.

African Americans would face a tough road toward equality. As soon as the war freed the slaves, communities throughout the South limited African Americans' rights through a series of local rules called "Black Codes." The rules allowed African Americans to marry, to buy and sell property, and to bring lawsuits against each other. In many communities, however, the laws also required African Americans to get their employers' permission before going into town or receiving guests at the plantation. African Americans could be arrested for being out too late, or even for being unemployed. No longer able to control African Americans as slaves, Southern whites tried to restrict their activities through laws.

Antislavery advocates such as U.S. representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) of Pennsylvania, as well as African American community leaders, realized former slaves needed economic independence in order to be truly free. Without their own land, many African Americans were still dependent for work and shelter on the plantation owners who once enslaved them. Baptist preacher Garrison Frazier led a group of twenty ex-slaves who met in 1865 with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814–1869) in Savannah, Georgia, to discuss this concern. "The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare," Frazier said, as noted in Black Voices from Reconstruction. "We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own."

Did you know …

  • Lincoln sent a proposal to the Delaware legislature in November 1861 to gradually free that state's slaves over a period of thirty years. Under this plan, the federal government would have paid slave owners for part of the value of their slaves. The plan was one of Lincoln's early efforts to end slavery without alienating the slaveholding states. But the idea fizzled as the ongoing Civil War required a more immediate answer to the slavery issue.
  • Historians estimate about twelve million Africans were placed on slave ships bound for the Americas from the late 1400s to the early 1800s, but only 5 percent of those slaves came to the United States. The vast majority went to Brazil and the Caribbean, where the hot climate and back-breaking work conditions on sugar and rice plantations led to shorter life spans. By comparison, the U.S. plantations produced less labor-intensive crops, such as cotton and tobacco, in a cooler climate. This allowed American slaves to live longer lives and have families—and by 1825, one-third of all slaves in the Western Hemisphere were in the United States.
  • The North drew African Americans into the Army as part of its strategy to win the Civil War, but it did not give them the same pay as white soldiers until 1864. Prior to that, white soldiers received $13 a month plus clothing, while African American soldiers received $10 a month, from which $3 was deducted to pay for their clothing.
  • Recognizing that African Americans helped turn the tide for the North, the Confederate Congress voted in March 1865 to bring slaves into its Southern army. But the plan came too late. The war ended a month later, before any of the soldier slaves could be used.

Consider the following …

  • Why did it take several years—and several gradual measures from Lincoln and Congress—before slavery was outlawed?
  • Do you think the outcome of the Civil War would have been different if the North had not used African American soldiers, or if the South had tried to use them sooner?
  • Once they were freed from slavery, what obstacles did African Americans face on the road to equality?

For More Information

Harman, Danna. "Liberia: From Oasis of Freedom to Ongoing Civil War." Christian Science Monitor (June 12, 2002): p. 7.

Levine, Michael L. African Americans and Civil Rights: From 1619 to the

Present. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1996.

McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

Smith, John David. Black Voices from Reconstruction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April–June 1865. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

United States Government Printing Office. "Thirteenth Amendment—Slavery and Involuntary Servitude." GPO Access: Constitution of the United States. (accessed on September 20, 2004).

Involuntary servitude: Forced labor.

Duly convicted: Found guilty after a trial.

Jurisdiction: Authority.

Article: Provision of the Constitution.

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Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

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