Thirteenth Amendment

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Thirteenth Amendment

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.

Ratification Facts


Submitted by Congress to the states on January 31, 1865.


Ratified by the required three-fourths of states (twenty-seven of the thirty-six states) on December 18, 1865.

Ratifying States:

Illinois, February 1, 1865; Rhode Island, February 2, 1865; Michigan, February 2, 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 9, 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..

The drafting of the Thirteenth Amendment was a direct result of the North’s victory in the Civil War, which ended the longstanding slavery controversy. The Thirteenth became the first of three amendments passed after the Civil War between 1865 and 1870. Known as the Civil War amendments, these three amendments focus on protecting individual rights and raising the legal status of black Americans to that enjoyed by whites.

The Thirteenth Amendment’s primary goal was to end the master-slave relationship. Slavery had been a cornerstone of the U.S. economy since colonial days, providing a cheap labor force for the expanding agricultural region of the South. Originally shipped from Africa, the slave population had over the years increased dramatically. A growing abolitionist (people wanting to end slavery) movement in the North led to increased sectional division between the North and South. The lack of resolution of the slavery issue by Congress or the courts led ultimately to the Civil War and resolution on the battlefield.

The brief amendment is composed of two sections. Section 1 directly prohibits slavery and most other forms of involuntary servitude where people are forced to work for others against their will. Section 2 gives Congress power to pass laws aggressively enforcing section 1.

Differing legal interpretations of the amendment arose immediately after it was ratified. Some argued the amendment was only intended to legally resolve the black slavery issue. This interpretation would allow states to address other issues related to involuntary servitude, such as peonage, on their own, free from federal government involvement. (Peonage refers to the case in which a person is forced against his or her will to work for another to pay off a debt.) However, others contended the amendment should be interpreted much more broadly, addressing a more general concept of freedom. They asserted that only Congress, and not the states, could determine the full extent and meaning of involuntary servitude in section 1, and under section 2 pass all laws needed to ensure citizens were not subjected to that servitude. The second interpretation is the one the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately accepted.

Origins of the Thirteenth Amendment

The shipping of slaves from Africa to the American colonies began in the late 1600s. By the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), more than five hundred thousand black slaves were in the colonies, predominantly in the South.

Slavery was a key to the new nation’s struggling economy, primarily in the agricultural South. Like Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, many of the framers to the U.S. Constitution were slaveholders. Consequently, the 1787 document made no direct mention of slavery. In fact, protection was provided to southern slaveholding states in several clauses. The three-fifths clause gave slave states representation in Congress based on 60 percent of their slaves. Two clauses limited taxation on slaves. The Constitution also prohibited Congress from outlawing the bustling African slave trade until 1808. Another clause required the return of fugitive slaves to their owners. Federal troops could also be used to suppress slave rebellions. The Constitution essentially protected slavery in any state where citizens wanted it.

Americans increasingly saw slavery as inhumane and inconsistent with the concepts of freedom and liberty. Consequently, the political and legal conflict over slavery escalated in the United States up through the mid-nineteenth century. However, it was generally accepted through this time that the national government had no authority to interfere with slavery where it existed. Meanwhile, the United States was experiencing dramatic growth economically, geographically, and politically. But the nation’s northern and southern states progressed along vastly different paths. The North’s economy became increasingly industrial while the South’s economy remained predominately agricultural. Improvements in cotton fiber processing propelled a cotton production boom in the early nineteenth century. The cotton industry spread rapidly from South Carolina to Texas. More slaves were needed to keep up with the demand for cotton

While professing to champion individuals’ freedom, the United States had become the world’s largest slaveholding nation. Many citizens found this trend shameful. However, since the ratification process requires three-fourths of the states to approve a new amendment, the slaveholding states always had a sufficient number to readily block any amendment designed to change the Constitution and restrict slavery.

Events escalate tension

A number of major events in the nation’s growth during the early nineteenth century served to escalate tensions between the North and South. New western territories requesting statehood threatened the fragile balance of power in Congress between free states and slavery states. In an effort to maintain an equal number of slave and free states, Congress adopted the Missouri Compromise in 1820. The compromise allowed the practice of slavery to expand to some western U.S. territories but not to others. However, the Supreme Court ruled the compromise unconstitutional, once again raising fears of an uncontrolled spread of slavery in the West. The issue of expanding slavery dominated politics in the 1850s.

Though few in number, the larger plantations ruled southern life with their owners living like European nobility. A way of life dependent on cheap, slave labor had become entrenched in the South. With the growing antislavery movement in the North, southern leaders feared the federal government would apply increased pressure to force substantial changes in the South’s economy and society. This prospect of federal intervention was highly unacceptable to the southern leaders who strongly supported states’ rights (freedom of states from federal government control). Slavery thus also became the major states’ rights issue of the mid-nineteenth century.

Significantly adding to the escalating volatility was the Fugitive Slave Law passed by Congress in 1850 and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1857. The law made it a crime for citizens not to help catch and return slaves who had fled the South. This requirement was very unpopular among many northerners who sympathized with those slaves seeking freedom and in many cases were actively helping them. The Dred Scott ruling held that Congress did not have authority under the Constitution to abolish slavery. In addition, the Court stated that slaves were not considered citizens, but rather a form of property. The Court, therefore, left it to others to resolve the bitter controversy, either politically or on the battlefield.

Abraham Lincoln and war

In 1850, neither of the two main political parties in the United States, the Democrats and the Whigs, was willing to take a strong antislavery stance. Those firmly opposed to slavery grew disillusioned with the two parties and formed the Republican Party in 1854. While most Republicans were primarily interested in stopping the spread of slavery to new states and territories, some were abolitionists and opposed to slavery anywhere in the nation, even in the South. The party quickly made a strong showing, winning a third of the popular vote in the 1856 presidential race.

Four years later, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) of Illinois as their presidential candidate. The South perceived Lincoln as anti-states’ rights and antislavery though Lincoln publicly professed a middle course.

Fearing federal government interference with the southern traditional way of life, including slavery, the election of Lincoln triggered a rapid sequence of southern states seceding from the Union. Even before he took office, South Carolina seceded (formally left the Union) on December 20, 1860, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas during the next several weeks. In an effort to limit the number of states seceding and avoid conflict, in his March 4 inaugural address Lincoln proclaimed, “I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.“

The secession of southern states from the United States in 1860 and 1861 significantly altered congressional politics. The free states suddenly held almost total control in Congress.

When the war was under way, Lincoln devised a clever plan to address slavery. He could legally seize any property the enemy (the South) used to wage war against the United States. Black slaves, deemed “property” by the Supreme Court in its 1857 decision in Dred Scott, raised food and cotton fiber for the southern war effort and served as laborers and teamsters in the Confederate army. Lincoln reasoned that because slaves were property and were being used to wage war against the United States, he could rightfully seize the slaves when given the opportunity. Hence, when three slaves escaped to Union lines in May 1861, the local Union commander refused to return them. Soon hundreds of other slaves escaped to Union lines. In March 1862, Congress passed a law forbidding Union officers to return fugitive slaves. Increasing numbers of slaves fled in 1862.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln faced increasing public pressure to proclaim emancipation (freedom) for the slaves. Before long, the use of emancipation to weaken the South’s war effort by freeing the slaves became more attractive. In July 1862, Congress passed two laws, a confiscation act freeing slaves from owners who actively supported the Confederacy and a militia act giving Lincoln power to use freed slaves in the Union Army.

Soon, Lincoln boldly decided to go even further than Congress. He decided to issue a proclamation freeing all slaves in states waging war against the United States. In an effort to gain support of conservatives in the North who supported slavery, Lincoln argued that freeing slaves was the only way to win the war. Lincoln assured them that if he could save the Union without freeing slaves, he would. But, in September 1862, Lincoln warned all states at war with the Union: their slaves would be free on January 1, 1863.

True to his word, on January 1, Lincoln issued the historic Emancipation Proclamation, formally committing U.S. troops to liberate slaves in the Confederate states. The Civil War, largely begun over the issue of states’ rights became more openly a war over slavery. The proclamation was limited in scope. It did not free slaves in the border slave states that had stayed with the Union. Lincoln tried to persuade these border states to voluntarily free slaves, even offering federal compensation (payment) to slaveholders, but none took the offer. The proclamation did not affect parts of three Confederate states as well that were under Union military control at the time. In keeping with the congressional acts passed in 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation also authorized use of freed slaves and free blacks as Union soldiers. As a result of the proclamation, 180,000 freed black Americans fought in the Union Army and 10,000 in the navy.

A new amendment

Nearing the end of the Civil War, Lincoln and others believed the Emancipation Proclamation was basically a war measure that would have no constitutional legality during peacetime. Considerable doubt existed over Lincoln’s power to have issued the proclamation in the first place, and, similarly, a general belief existed that Congress had no power to pass laws supporting emancipation. Slavery likely would once again be restored in the South. A constitutional amendment to abolish slavery was needed.

The Senate, overwhelmingly controlled by antislavery Republicans, readily passed the proposed Thirteenth Amendment on April 8, 1864. However, with a larger proportion of pro-slavery Democrats in the House, the amendment could not gain passage at first, and a lengthy political battle developed. In the 1864 fall elections, the Republicans gained more seats in the House, and the amendment consequently passed on January 31, 1865. Next loomed the difficult state ratification process (three-fourths of the states must approve amendments). The federal government required the southern states to ratify the amendment before they could be readmitted into the Union. It took almost another eleven months before the three-fourths approval by the states was achieved.

The Thirteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court

Before adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, five basic categories of slavery cases had come before the Supreme Court: African slave trade; interstate commerce (conducting business across state boundaries) and slavery; return of fugitive slaves; slavery in the western territories; and, travel of slaves through free states. The pro-slavery perspectives of chief justices John Marshall (1755–1835) and Roger Brooke Taney (1777–1864) were influential. Throughout the history of the Supreme Court, until the Civil War, most court justices were southerners. Most of the northerners on the Court were Democrats who sympathized with the pro-slavery South. Except for some early slave trade cases, most important slavery cases came before the Court when Taney, an ardent slavery supporter, was chief justice. The Court’s decisions from 1837 until the Civil War reflected this pro-slavery slant.

The Court interprets the slavery amendment

The amendment—the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments—introduced a radically new legal concept to the nation. It marked the first time federal law placed a restriction on the power of states to define the status of their own residents. Following the Civil War, abolitionist chief justice Salmon P. Chase (1808–1873) led the Court. But the Court’s support of the amendment did not come easily. The Court would have to build a new legal philosophy based on concepts of freedom and racial equality. This transition in the Court’s perspective proved difficult and slow, often resulting in rulings that did little to protect the newly established freedoms.

Section 1: Prohibition of Slavery and Involuntary Servitude

Congress’s intent with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was to take the question of emancipation out of the nation’s politics and relieve sectional strife between the North and South. Section 1 directly prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. The primary concern was the scope of the definition of involuntary servitude. Two main factors are involved in involuntary servitude: (1) the involuntary nature of the labor, having to act against one’s will; and (2) servitude that is the labor of one individual being fully controlled by another person. Section 1 clearly stated that being legally imprisoned for a crime is not involuntary servitude.

Was involuntary servitude concerned only with black slavery, or did it have a broader meaning? As early as 1873, in the Slaughter-house Cases, the Supreme Court observed that the word servitude had a larger meaning than just slavery, although “the obvious purpose was to forbid all shades and conditions of African slavery.“ The Court had to consider whether the amendment gave protection to persons not of African descent. The resulting Slaughter-house decision revealed an evolving interpretation of section 1 that would include individuals with ancestry other than black and would give early acknowledgement that peonage (when a person is forced to work for another to pay off a debt) was a form of involuntary servitude. The Court stated that although “Negro slavery alone was in the mind of the Congress which proposed the thirteenth article [amendment], it forbids any other kind of slavery, now or hereafter. If Mexican peonage or the Chinese coolie labor system shall develop slavery of the Mexican or Chinese race within our territory, this amendment may safely be trusted to make it void.”

A few years later in the Civil Rights Cases (1883), the Court observed that the amendment was “self-executing,“ meaning it abolished slavery and “established universal freedom” without the need of further congressional legislation to make slavery illegal.

Uncertain freedom

In legal processes, the Court’s interpretation of slavery being illegal largely remained noncontroversial through the years. But in practice, as slaves throughout the South took their first cautious steps as freed people, the South’s reaction to the Thirteenth Amendment was hostile. Opposition to ending slavery remained strong, and many whites refused to treat freed slaves equally. From state to state in the South, new laws known as the Black Codes were enacted from 1865 to 1866. The various codes were meant to keep blacks from being free and tried to bring back slavery in all but name. Realizing the former slaves’ liberty was insecure, Congress turned to section 2 of the amendment.

Section 2: Enforcement by Appropriate Legislation

Section 2 gave Congress power to pass laws enforcing section 1 where it saw the need. The other two Civil War amendments, the Fourteenth (ratified in 1868) and the Fifteenth (ratified in 1870), also ended with sections giving Congress power to enforce the amendments with appropriate legislation. The extent of Congress’s enforcement powers was immediately challenged. Was Congress empowered to pass laws dealing only with very narrow topics such as black slavery or with broad issues such as various forms of discrimination?

Enforcement acts of Congress

Congress decided it could indeed pass legislation dealing with many equality issues. One of the first pieces of legislation it passed was the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The act attempted to enforce the ban on slavery by securing “to all citizens of every race and color, and without regard to previous servitude, those fundamental rights which are the essence of civil freedom, namely the same right to make and enforce contracts, to sue, … give evidence, and to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey [transfer to another] property, as enjoyed by white citizens.”

Another act, the Peonage Abolition Act of 1867, declared unlawful “the holding of any person to service or labor under the system known as peonage.” It nullified “all acts, laws, resolutions, or usages” that maintained a system of peonage.

Nine years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed. The first section of the act addressed the problem of discrimination (giving privileges to one group but not to another similar group) in public accommodations. Although it might be privately owned, an accommodation is considered public if its facilities are available to the general population. Examples are inns, theaters, restaurants, railroad cars—all facilities from which former slaves were routinely prohibited.

The denial of equal access to such accommodations and various other discriminatory situations, including denial of property ownership to blacks, collectively became known as “badges of slavery.” Although not specifically slavery, they resulted in unequal access and treatment, effectively keeping black people in a subservient (suppressed) condition.

Enforcement powers come crumbling down

Early lower court rulings and a Supreme Court dissenting opinion in Blyew v. United States (1871) hinted the courts might support broad congressional powers of enacting laws to enforce the Civil War Amendments. But this viewpoint began crumbling with the Supreme Court case, the Civil Rights Cases (1883). Limitation of congressional powers continued with Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and peaked with Hodges v. United States in 1906. The question of peonage produced its own set of court cases that also began at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Civil Rights Cases

The Civil Rights Cases (1883) came to the Supreme Court as a direct challenge to the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. To be constitutional, a law passed by Congress must reflect what the U.S. Constitution and its amendments intended. The case was a combination of five cases gathered together into one case. The cases all involved black individuals being denied access to accommodations—privately owned hotels, theaters, and a railway car.

In its decision, the Court reaffirmed that Congress was empowered to pass laws to abolish badges of slavery. However, the Court viewed badges to be along the lines of those rights listed in the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Writing for the Court, Justice Joseph Bradley (1813–1892) refused to view racial discrimination such as refusal of accommodations at an inn or theater as any manner of servitude or form of slavery. In a famous quote, Bradley observed, “It would be running the slavery argument into the ground, to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to the guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car, or admit to his concert or theater.” Therefore, Bradley rejected the 1875 act based on the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment only authorized Congress to pass legislation to ban forms of slavery, and refusal of accommodations was not a “badge of slavery.”

Bradley also struck down the act using the Fourteenth Amendment by declaring the Fourteenth prohibited discriminatory actions by a state but not discrimination by private individuals. Only Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, asserting that the Court had violated the spirit of the Reconstruction Amendments. He wrote that “the substance and spirit of the recent amendments of the Constitution have been sacrificed by a subtle and ingenious verbal criticism.” Harlan’s lone dissent in the Civil Rights Cases and the 1896 separate but equal decision of Plessy v. Ferguson earned him the nickname “the Great Dissenter.”

With the ruling, black Americans lost all five cases making up the Civil Rights Cases. The cases arose out of the states of California, Kansas, Missouri, New York, and Tennessee. However, it is important to note that although the Supreme Court had struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, it had not invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

Many southern states took advantage of the Civil Rights Cases decision by passing laws that enforced racial segregation (keeping people separated according to race) and discrimination in public places. These were known as the Jim Crow laws. The Court approved these laws in 1896.

Plessy v. Ferguson

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court gave approval to the Jim Crow laws when it upheld as constitutional the use of segregation rules on railroad passenger cars. The Court ruled that such racial segregation did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment because no condition of involuntary servitude was established. In the lone dissent in the case, Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911) argued that “separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution.” With the Plessy decision, the separate but equal doctrine was established. Facilities for blacks could be separate from white facilities as long as the blacks’ facilities were equal or as good as the whites’. In reality, blacks’ facilities such as schools, hotels, and public transportation vehicles typically were very inferior to white facilities. With the separate but equal doctrine, civil rights laws passed by Congress were ignored.

Hodges v. United States

The lessening of congressional powers under the Thirteenth’s section 2 to pass laws protecting blacks from racial discrimination began in Civil Rights Cases and reached a new low in Hodges v. United States (1906). The Court ruled that the federal government had no authority to prosecute a gang of white citizens who forced blacks off a job in Arkansas because this was private discrimination and not discrimination by any government. It was strictly an action by private individuals, and private discrimination could not constitutionally fall under the civil rights laws.


Violations of the Peonage Abolition Act of 1867, a law passed under section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment, did not become a serious concern of the U.S. Justice Department until after 1900. With little controversy, the Court had acknowledged peonage as a form of involuntary servitude in the Slaughter-house Cases (1873). But peonage was established in many southern states through a system of state laws and customs. It was a cornerstone that permitted prosecution of laborers who tried to abandon their jobs. The majority of victims of peonage laws were black Americans. In Clyatt v. United States (1905), Samuel Clyatt tested the legality of forcing a person in debt to labor under contract until the debt could be paid off. Citing the 1867 Peonage Act, the Supreme Court decided in Clyatt’s favor.

During the same period, U.S. district judge Thomas Goode Jones heard multiple peonage cases, the Alabama Peonage Cases, and struck down several Alabama laws. Jones affirmed the right of an individual to work where he or she pleases and that debt collection is generally subject to civil suits under contract law but not to criminal proceedings. The threat of criminal proceedings had previously coerced people to stay under forced labor. Jones’s efforts led to Supreme Court decisions in Bailey v. Alabama (1911) and United States v. Reynolds (1914), together called the Peonage Cases. In Bailey, the Court ruled that a state “may not compel one man to labor for another in payment of a debt by punishing him as a criminal if he does not perform the service or pay the debt.” The decisions, based on the 1867 act, knocked out support of the southern peonage system, which was seen as one of the last remnants of slavery.

A non-factor in law.

With the exception of the peonage issue, the Thirteenth Amendment became a non-factor in law. But why were there such adverse rulings undercutting the Thirteenth Amendment’s effectiveness in fighting racial discrimination is difficult to explain. Some legal scholars have pointed to a variety of factors existing in the late nineteenth century. One was that the public had likely grown weary of attempts to force social change on the South. Another major factor was that a general insensitivity to individual rights clearly persisted during this period. Individual rights were more associated with the opportunity to make a living, not civil rights.

Return of the Thirteenth

For sixty years, states enforced racial segregation in many public places, including public schools, transportation, and numerous other aspects of everyday life. A number of cases came to the Court claiming private covenants (agreements) used among whites to not sell or lease property to blacks violated the Thirteenth Amendment. But the Court refused to hear such claims, allowing the covenants to stand.

Finally, fundamental changes in law came in 1954 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision, which overturned (reversed the decision of) Plessy and outlawed the separate-but-equal doctrine. But the successful arguments for striking down segregation in public schools were based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, not the Thirteenth Amendment. In 1964, Congress passed the most comprehensive civil rights legislation since the 1875 act. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was largely based on the commerce clause in Article I of the Constitution, not the Thirteenth Amendment. Four years later, in 1968, the Thirteenth Amendment finally made a dramatic courtroom comeback in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company.

In making the far-reaching Jones ruling, the Court first had to establish whether Congress had the power to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Court had never invalidated this act as it had the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It was clear to Justice Potter Stewart (1915–1985) that section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment was all the authority needed to pass the act abolishing badges of slavery, in this case a private developer refusing to sell a home to a black man. The amendment, Stewart also reasoned, provided constitutional support for congressional legislation against private racial discrimination.

At last with the Jones decision, Congress had the constitutional support of section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment to enact laws prohibiting racial discrimination. Other cases followed on the heels of Jones. In Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park (1969), the Court ruled the 1866 act protects a black resident’s share in a neighborhood recreational club that normally was available with the lease or purchase of a house in an area. Johnson v. Railway Express Agency (1975) supported federal remedies for racial discrimination in private employment. In Runyon v. McCrary (1976), the Court ruled that all people have the right to make and enforce contracts and that black children have the right to attend commercially operated private nonsectarian schools (not sponsored by a religious denomination). In essence, the 1866 act could apply to all areas over which Congress has authority, including school segregation.

Racial Housing Restrictions as Badges of Slavery

Only a year after adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which directed that “citizens of every race and color” would have “the same right … [to] purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey [transfer to another] … property … as is enjoyed by white citizens.”

Nevertheless, by the 1910s, voluntary agreements among white residents, known as restrictive covenants, were established banning residents of particular neighborhoods from selling or renting their homes to blacks. These became common in the newly flourishing suburban residential developments of the 1960s.

In 1965, a black American, Joseph Lee Jones, wished to purchase a home in the newly established Paddock Woods subdivision in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. The developer, Alfred H. Mayer Company, indicated to Jones that it was their policy not to sell to blacks. In reaction to Mayer’s policy, Jones promptly filed a lawsuit with the District Court of the Eastern District of Missouri, claiming that refusal to sell a house to a person solely because he is black violated the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Jones requested an injunctive order to force Mayer to abandon its policy and sought monetary damages for the humiliation the policy caused. Both the district court and later the appeals court dismissed Jones’s suit by ruling that the 1866 act’s prohibitions applied only to government actions. Mayer Company was privately owned and not subject to the act’s restrictions. Jones took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court largely focused on what Congress intended when it passed the 1866 act. Were the antidiscrimination prohibitions intended to apply to everyone, or only governments? The resulting decision held that the act applied to everyone. Justice Potter Stewart, after examining historic records of the congressional debates leading to the act’s passage and aware of private hostility that blacks faced at that time, declared that the act seemed plainly written to prohibit all racial discrimination regardless of whether a governmental action or by private people. The Court ruled that the refusal of the Mayer Company to sell Jones a house solely because he was black violated his civil rights and that he was entitled to payment of damages.

The Court further emphasized that the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery had given Congress the authority it needed for “abolishing all badges and incidents of slavery in the United States“ and that unfair housing practices were indeed “incidents of slavery.“ If certain civil rights considered essential for freedom were denied, then the Court could consider it a form of slavery.

Stewart wrote: “Surely Congress has the power under the Thirteenth Amendment rationally to determine what are the badges and the incidents of slavery, and the authority to translate that determination into effective legislation … Just as the Black Codes, enacted after the Civil War to restrict the free exercise of those rights were substitutes for the slave system, so the exclusion of Negroes from white communities became a substitute for the Black Codes. And when racial discrimination herds men into ghettos and makes their ability to buy property turn to the color of their skin, then it too is a relic of slavery … At the very least, the freedom that Congress is empowered to secure under the Thirteenth Amendment includes the freedom to buy whatever a white man can buy, the right to live where a white man can live. If Congress cannot say that being a free man means at least that much, then the Thirteenth Amendment made a promise the Nation cannot keep.”

In delivering its decision, the Court had recognized that many laws and widespread social customs of the early twentieth century had kept black Americans in a situation not resembling freedom. The Court’s decision in Jones was an important influence on later civil rights legislation as well as supporting fairness in housing. Congress had power under the Thirteenth Amendment to prohibit racial discrimination by private individuals as well as discrimination resulting from government actions.

Thirteenth Amendment issues continue

Cases near the end of the twentieth century involved issues other than racial discrimination and further examined the meaning of involuntary servitude. United States v. Kozminski (1988) involved two mentally retarded men in poor health who worked seventeen hours a day, seven days a week, for little pay. Employers applied various physical and psychological threats. The Court held that “the term ‘involuntary servitude’ necessarily means a condition of servitude in which the victim is forced to work for the defendant through use of or threat of physical restraint or physical injury, or by the threat of coercion through the legal process.” Involuntary servitude cannot involve psychological coercion alone. Some physical or legal coercion must be present.

Another form of involuntary servitude could include religious sect (organized group) activities. In several cases in the 1980s, courts ruled that religious sects may be found guilty of involuntary servitude if an individual is clearly being held against his or her will.

A series of suits have been filed around the country seeking reparations for African American descendants of slaves. Part of those claims revolved around the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the majority of those claims in In Re: African-American Slave Descendants Litigation (2006).

Situations in which the Thirteenth does not apply

Through time the Court has also identified certain legal requirements of citizens, including civic responsibilities, which are not considered involuntary servitude. In Robertson v. Baldwin (1897), the Court ruled that seamen may have to give up some personal liberties through the contracts they sign. The resulting work on the high seas subject to the commands of the ship’s captain is not involuntary servitude. The Thirteenth Amendment protections also do not apply to the military draft as determined in Selective Draft Law Cases (1918) and later reaffirmed in United States v. O’Brien (1968). In 1911, the Court upheld that convicts can be required to work on public street projects as part of their sentence and that the government can also collect overdue taxes or child support from workers’ wages. Also, a state can require people to obtain employment as a condition of participating in public assistance programs. Student requirements of community service for graduation also did not constitute involuntary servitude or peonage. The Court held in UAW v. WERB (1949) that injunctions and cease-and-desist orders in labor disputes requiring workers to return to work do not violate the Thirteenth Amendment. Other civic duties that do not violate the Thirteenth Amendment include requirements to serve on grand juries as decided in Hurtado v. United States (1973) .

Military Duty

The drafting of young men into required military service has a long history of controversy in the United States, beginning with the Revolutionary War (1775–83) when the colonies denied the creation of a national army. The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1789, gave Congress the “power to raise and support armies“ but did not address the power to draft people into service. Not until the American Civil War (1861–65) did Congress pass a draft law, the Union Draft Law of 1863, making every male citizen between twenty and forty-five years of age subject to the draft. The principle behind draft laws is that in a democracy when the security of a nation is in danger, every citizen has the duty to serve his country.

The 1863 law allowed draftees to hire a substitute or pay $300, roughly equal to a worker’s yearly wages, to escape service. The unpopular law, which allowed the wealthy to buy their way out, led to draft riots across the country in 1863. Although highly controversial, the Civil War draft law was never legally tested in the Supreme Court. The legality of a national draft remained unchallenged.

When the United States entered World War I (1914–18) in February 1917, the nation immediately faced the problem of how to quickly assemble a large army. In May 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which required men between ages twenty-one and thirty to register with the government so that they could potentially be selected for required military service. This time, substitutes and pays-offs were prohibited though the law did allow for some exemptions.

Although twenty-four million men complied with the act and registered for the draft, more than two million did not. Additionally, almost 340,000 failed to report when called or deserted after arriving at training camp. The U.S. government arrested many who avoided military service, and some of those arrested legally challenged the draft law. The Supreme Court combined several cases challenging the draft into one case known as the Selective Draft Law Cases. The resisters argued that the Constitution did not give Congress power to command men to serve in the military against their will. As part of their argument, they claimed the draft was a form of involuntary servitude prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment.

A unanimous Court rejected all of the resisters’ arguments in upholding the Selective Service Act. The Court ruled that the Constitution gives Congress power “to raise and support armies” and to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” to carry out that power, and the Court also stated that it saw no similarity between what the Thirteenth Amendment called involuntary servitude and military service. The Court ruled citizenship carried with it an obligation to perform the “supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people.” This obligation does not violate prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment. Use of the military draft ended in 1973 as the Vietnam War neared an end, but required registration continued to the end of the twentieth century in order to maintain a list of men in case a need suddenly arose.

Summing Up the Parts of the Thirteenth Amendment

Taken together and integrated at the beginning of the twenty-first century in light of more than one hundred years of court decisions, the Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude and gave Congress the power to pass laws to carry out the bans. Although abolishing African slavery was the initial goal, the Thirteenth allows Congress to pass laws prohibiting many forms of racial discrimination, regardless of whether it is imposed by a private individual or by government. As legal commentator Alexander Tsesis writes: “The Thirteenth Amendment’s significance extends beyond the abolition of slavery.” It is the driving spirit behind the push for fundamental equality.



Belz, Herman, et al., eds. Lincoln and Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Thirteenth Amendment. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.

Bridgewater, Pamela D. Breeding a Nation: Reproductive Slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Pursuit of Freedom. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2008.

George, Charles. Life under the Jim Crow Laws (Way People Live). Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2000.

Tsesis, Alexander. The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Cambridge Historical Studies in American Law and Society). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Wormser, Richard. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.


Hern, Marcellene Elizabeth, “A Thirteenth Amendment Defense of the Violence against Women Act.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 146 (April 1998): 1097–1167.

Hug, Aziz Z., “Peonage and Contractual Liberty.” Columbia Law Review 101(May 2001): 351–391.

Tsesis, Alexander, “Furthering American Freedom: Civil Rights and the Thirteenth Amendment.” Boston College Law Review 45 (2004): 348–390.

Wolff, Tobias Barrington, “The Thirteenth Amendment and Slavery in the Global Community.” Columbia Law Review 102 (May 2002): 973–1050.

Web sites

African American Odyssey Exhibit. (accessed August 12, 2007).

Findlaw Internet Legal Resources. The Thirteenth Amendment and Annotations. (accessed August 12, 2007) .

FindLaw Internet Legal Resources. U.S. Supreme Court Opinions. (accessed August 12, 2007) .


Biskupic, Joan, and Elder Witt. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1997.

Hall, Kermit L., ed. Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Lehman, Jeffrey, and Shirelle Phelps, eds. West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2004.

Stephens, Otis H. Jr., and John M. Schebb II. American Constitutional Law. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1993.

Thirteenth Amendment

views updated May 11 2018


The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

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 Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were approved by Congress and ratified by the states after the u.s. civil war. Known collectively as the Civil War Amendments, they were designed to protect individual rights. The Thirteenth Amendment forbids involuntary servitude or slavery, except where the condition is imposed on an individual as punishment for a crime.

For many decades, however, the goals of the Civil War Amendments were frustrated. Due perhaps to the waning public support for postwar Reconstruction and the nation's lack of sensitivity to individual rights, the U.S. Supreme Court severely curtailed the application of the amendments. The Supreme Court thwarted the amendments in two ways: by restrictively interpreting the substantive provisions of the amendments and by rigidly confining Congress's enforcement power.

Congress enacted a number of statutes to enforce the provisions of the Civil War Amendments, but by the end of the nineteenth century, most of those statutes had been overturned by the courts, repealed, or nullified by subsequent legislation. For example, Congress enacted the civil rights act of 1875 (18 Stat. 336), which provided that all persons should have full and equal enjoyment of public inns, parks, theaters, and other places of amusement, regardless of race or color. Although some federal courts upheld the constitutionality of the act, many courts struck it down. These decisions were then appealed together to the U.S. Supreme Court and became known as the civil rights cases, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18, 27 L. Ed. 835 (1883). The cases involved theaters in New York and California that would not seat African Americans, a hotel in Missouri and a restaurant in Kansas that would not serve African Americans, and a train in Tennessee that would not allow an African American woman in the "ladies" car.

The Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by an 8–1 vote, holding that Congress had exceeded its authority to enforce the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court held that private discrimination against African Americans did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment's ban on slavery. Following this decision, several northern and western states began enacting their own bans on discrimination in public places. But many other states did the opposite: they began codifying racial segregation and discrimination in laws that became known as the jim crow laws.

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, in which it upheld segregation on railroad cars. Desegregationists had hoped that the Supreme Court would acknowledge that the federal government's power to regulate interstate commerce allowed it to ban segregation on public transportation. But the Court avoided this issue, holding that this particular railway was a purely local line. In addition, the Court found that the segregation rules did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment because they did not establish a state of involuntary servitude, although they did distinguish between races. In a lone dissent, Justice john marshall harlan argued that the "arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the constitution."

During the next six decades, the U.S. Supreme Court continued to uphold segregation of the races in schools, public accommodations, public transportation, and various other aspects of public life, so long as the treatment of the races was equal. The Court refused to hear cases arguing that the Thirteenth Amendment was violated by private covenants between whites who agreed not to sell or lease their homes to African Americans. Thus, the covenants were allowed to stand. Gradually, though, the Supreme Court's narrow view of the Civil War Amendments expanded, resulting in significant changes in civil and criminal law. This expansion began in 1954, when the Court overturned its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson and outlawed the separate-but-equal doctrine (brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 [1954]).

Although the Supreme Court had declared invalid the Civil Rights Act of 1875, it had not invalidated an earlier act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1982). The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was specifically enacted to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment's ban on slavery. By 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court was relying on the act to prohibit individuals from discriminating against racial minorities in the sale or lease of housing (Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409, 88 S. Ct. 2186, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1189 [1968]). The Jones decision was issued just weeks after Congress enacted the first federal fair housing laws.

In reaching their decision the Supreme Court first had to decide whether Congress had the power to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Justice potter stewart, writing for the majority, turned to the Thirteenth Amendment and observed that it was adopted to remove the "badges of slavery" and that it gave Congress power to effect that removal. Stewart wrote:

Congress has the power under the Thirteenth Amendment rationally to determine what are the badges and the incidents of slavery, and the authority to translate that determination into effective legislation…. [W]hen racial discrimination herds men into ghettos and makes their ability to buy property turn on the color of their skin, then it too is a relic of slavery.

The Supreme Court continues to address issues that arise under the Thirteenth Amendment. In the 1988 case of United States v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931, 108 S. Ct. 2751, 100 L. Ed. 2d 788, the Court explored the meaning of the term involuntary servitude. This case addressed the Thirteenth Amendment as well as a federal criminal statute (18 U.S.C.A. § 1584) that forbids involuntary servitude. At issue in the case were two mentally challenged men in poor health who had been kept laboring on a farm. The men worked seven days a week, 17 hours a day, initially for $15 per week and then for no pay at all. Their employers used various forms of physical and psychological threats and force to keep the men on the farm. The Court held that "involuntary servitude" requires more than mere psychological coercion; it also requires physical or legal coercion. But, the Court noted, the Thirteenth Amendment was designed not only to abolish slavery of African Americans, but also to prevent other forms of compulsory labor akin to that slavery.

Observing that the definition of slavery has shifted since the Civil War, courts have held that involuntary servitude does not necessarily require a black slave and a white master (Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District, 789 F. Supp. 1337 [E.D. Pa. 1992]). The courts have found that religious sects may be guilty of subjecting an individual to involuntary servitude if the sect knowingly and willfully holds an individual against her will (United States v. Lewis, 644 F. Supp. 1391 [W.D. Mich.], aff'd, 840 F.2d 1276 (6th Cir. 1986). In addition, forcing a mental patient to perform nontherapeutic labor may be a form of involuntary servitude (Weidenfeller v. Kidulis, 380 F. Supp. 445 [E.D. Wis. 1974]).

The Thirteenth Amendment does not prohibit the government from compelling citizens to perform certain civic duties, such as serving on a jury (Hurtado v. United States, 410 U.S. 578, 93 S. Ct. 1157, 35 L. Ed. 2d 508 [1973]) or participating in the military draft (Selective Draft Law cases, 245 U.S. 366, 38 S. Ct. 159, 62 L. Ed. 349 [1918]).

A related statute is the Anti-Peonage Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 1994). Peonage is defined as compulsory service based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The courts have held that neither the Thirteenth Amendment nor the Anti-Peonage Act prevents a convicted person from being required to work on public streets as part of his sentence (Loeb v. Jennings, 67 S.E. 101 (Ga. 1910), aff'd, 219 U.S. 582, 31 S. Ct. 469, 55 L. Ed. 345 [1911]). In addition, neither of these laws prevents the government from garnishing wages or using the court's contempt power to collect overdue taxes or child support (Beltran v. Cohen, 303 F. Supp. 889 [N.D. Cal. 1969]; Knight v. Knight, 996 F.2d 1225 [9th Cir. 1993]).

The courts have also held that state workfare programs that require or encourage citizens to obtain gainful employment in order to participate in the state's public assistance programs do not constitute involuntary servitude or peonage (Brogan v. San Mateo County, 901 F.2d 762 [9th Cir. 1990]). In another interesting application of these laws, a federal court held that a high school program that required all students to complete 60 hours of community service in order to graduate did not constitute involuntary servitude or peonage (Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District, 789 F. Supp. 1337 [E.D. Pa. 1992]).

further readings

Azmy, Baher. 2002. "Unshackling the Thirteenth Amendment: Modern Slavery and a Reconstructed Civil Rights Agenda." Fordham Law Review 71 (December).

Glasser, Ira. 1991. Visions of Liberty. New York: Arcade.

Schleichert, Elizabeth. 1998. The Thirteenth Amendment: Ending Slavery. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow.

Smolla, Rodney A. 1997. Federal Civil Rights Acts. 3d ed. Vol. 1. New York: Clark Boardman Callaghan.

Vorenberg, Michael. 2001. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Witt, Elder, ed. 1979. The Supreme Court and Individual Rights. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Wolff, Tobias Barrington. 2002. "The Thirteenth Amendment and Slavery in the Global Economy." Columbia Law Review 102 (May).


Civil Rights; Fifteenth Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment.

Thirteenth Amendment

views updated May 29 2018

Thirteenth Amendment


By: U.S. Congress

Date: January 31, 1865

Source: U.S. Congress. Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, 1865. Available online at 〈〉 (accessed May 1, 2006).

About the Author: The thirty-eighth Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865. President Abraham Lincoln submitted the proposed amendment to the states for ratification on February 1, 1865. By December 6, 1865, the necessary number of states had ratified the amendment.


The North American colonies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as the new American nation during its first century, relied on a complex system of labor that included slaves. Manual labor, supplied by hired hands, owners, children, indentured servants, and slaves, fueled economic development and allowed not only for cash crops to be exported to European colonial powers (and later, equal trading partners), but for societies to form and flourish in both the northern and southern sections of the United States.

By the mid-1700s, the southern colonies of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, as well as areas such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, relied on slave labor for cash crops such as cotton, indigo, and tobacco. In the South, the transition from a "society with slaves" to a "slave society," in which slave labor provided more than fifty percent of all labor, stood in stark contrast to the North, which, by the third decade of the nineteenth century, had embraced industrialization and relied on a wage labor system and industrial export for economic growth.

Government policies and legislative maneuvers, including an 1828 tariff that helped the northern manufacturing economy (while hurting southern planters), the 1846 Wilmot Proviso, which attempted to ban slavery in Texas before its inclusion in the United States, and the ongoing battle over new states admitted to the Union and their "slave" vs. "free" status, opened the wedge between the North and the South.

This division set the stage for Civil War from 1861–1865. Abolitionists had been fighting against slavery for decades; the four million slaves of African ancestry in the South represented more than one-third the total population, and southern owners feared massive uprisings if slaves were granted any rights, however nominal. President Abraham Lincoln had campaigned in 1860 on a platform that sought to bridge the two positions; no new slave states, but slavery could remain in existing slave states. Six weeks into his new administration the first battle of the Civil War broke out at Fort Sumter. By the end of the war, over 580,000 men had died, and the Union emerged victorious, though the United States of America remained fractured.

President Lincoln had freed slaves in rebel-controlled areas with his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation; before his assassination on April 13, 1865 he had expressed the need for a constitutional amendment to free all slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.



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 Thirteenth Amendment nullified a wide range of state laws as well as Supreme Court decisions, including the 1857 Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sanford, in which Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote in the court's majority opinion: "In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the declaration of independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument … It is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration." Dred Scott was a slave who had lived in a free state, then moved to a slave state; Taney's opinion declared that Scott did not even have the standing to bring suit, as technically the U.S. Constitution did not recognize Scott as a citizen. The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted direct citizenship to all former slaves. It also required all states to provide equal protection to all people—not just citizens—within their boundaries.

With slavery now illegal and the Civil War ended, the painful process of Reconstruction began for the South. The four million slaves in the former "slave" states made a variety of choices for survival. Some stayed on the plantations where they had worked and were hired on as low-paid wage earners, others moved north to find work in factories or at ports, and still others migrated to land that the U.S. government offered to former slaves. Government agencies, such as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly called the Freedmen's Bureau, provided former slaves with food, clothing, and assistance in finding places to settle. The Freedmen's Bureau did not last long; when President Andrew Johnson, a southerner, became president after Lincoln's assassination, much of the Reconstruction that had been planned was dismantled.

Within a decade "black codes" appeared in states, limiting labor options, housing choices, schooling options, and other rights for former slaves. The black codes, over time, evolved into Jim Crow laws, which segregated restaurants, movie houses, hotels, restroom facilities, and neighborhoods in the former slave states. While the Thirteenth Amendment codified the end of slavery in the United States, society, especially in the South, followed the letter—though not the spirit—of the law.



Jeffrey, Julie Roy. The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press 1998.

Lerner, Gerda. The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press 2004.

Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2000.

Tsesis, Alexander. The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Thirteenth Amendment

views updated May 23 2018

Thirteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution made slavery illegal in the country. Ratified, or approved, in 1865, it was the first of three constitutional amendments adopted during the Reconstruction Era after the American Civil War (1861–65).

Momentum for emancipation

Emancipation of slaves in 1865 was the result of many different factors. Abolitionists had been working for emancipation since the birth of the nation. Northern states decided to support emancipation as their economies grew into systems that thrived on free labor rather than on slavery. After slavery helped split the nation in the Civil War, the federal government finally decided that emancipation was the best option to end slavery permanently in the United States.

In 1862, Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia and federal territories. It also repealed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and authorized the freedom of slaves from rebel Confederate areas who either escaped to Northern states or had been seized by Union troops during the war.

That same year, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) announced the Emancipation Proclamation . Effective January 1, 1863, the proclamation declared the freedom of all slaves in Confederate states which remained at war with the Union. The proclamation did not apply to slaves in states that had stayed with the Union, but most of these states took their own steps to emancipate slaves. Kentucky is the only state that stayed with the Union but declined to emancipate its slaves.

Crafting the Thirteenth Amendment

With the intention of ending slavery nationwide after the Civil War, the Senate proposed the Thirteenth Amendment in 1864. The House of Representatives refused to approve it until 1865, when the Republican Party gained more seats at the expense of the Democratic Party .

With support from President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69) after Lincoln's death, the amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the states by the end of 1865. Congress made approval of the Thirteenth Amendment one of the conditions that Confederate states had to satisfy to be readmitted to the Union. Mississippi was allowed to be readmitted without ratification only after the Thirteenth Amendment became effective nationwide. Mississippi did not ratify the Thirteenth Amendment until 1995.

The effects of freedom

The Thirteenth Amendment makes slavery and involuntary servitude illegal in America. It also gives Congress power to enforce the amendment through legislation. Starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 , Congress tried to define the citizenship and rights of newly freed slaves.

Court cases and political resistance thwarted such efforts, eventually leading to the proposal and adoption of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments . In theory, these amendments gave certain civil rights to freed slaves and all other Americans. In practice, court cases and political resistance prevented African Americans from fully enjoying those rights until the civil rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century.

As with most constitutional provisions, the meaning and effect of the Thirteenth Amendment is the subject of controversy. In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Thirteenth Amendment does not apply to discrimination in private relationships. The Court changed its mind in the 1968 case of Jones v. Mayer. In that decision, the Court ruled that by eliminating certain “badges of slavery,” the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits private acts of racial discrimination in contractual and property transactions.

The Text of the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution says, “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 meaning of the amendment's ban on involuntary servitude also is the subject of disagreement. Some believe it merely prevents people from continuing slavery under a different name. Others in the labor rights movement believe the Thirteenth Amendment gives workers certain rights in their relationships with their employers. In this regard, the Thirteenth Amendment is sometimes called the Labor Amendment.

Thirteenth Amendment

views updated May 29 2018

Thirteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery. Its first section states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" should exist within the United States or in any place subject to its jurisdiction. The second section grants Congress the power to "enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

Early in the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln repeatedly assured "loyal" planters that they would be able to keep their slaves, and the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863, specifically exempted most slaves held in areas already under federal military occupation and in the loyal border states. Yet, by encouraging abolitionist sentiment and authorizing the enlistment of African Americans in the Union Army, the Emancipation Proclamation also changed the focus of the war into a struggle against slavery itselfregardless of where it existed.

Because the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued as a war measure, some feared that it might be judged unconstitutional after the war's end. Lincoln came under increasing political pressure from within his Republican Party to resolve the issue with a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The Republican platform of 1864 strongly supported such an amendment, and when Lincoln was re-elected in November, he began an aggressive attempt to win passage from the "lame duck" Congress in early 1865. Though the Democratic opposition had the votes to prevent passage of the amendment in the House of Representatives, Lincoln's electoral mandate served to undermine their unity. Furthermore, secret promises of administration patronage, approaching outright bribery, secured sufficient Democratic votes and absences to allow passage by a vote of 119 to 56two votes above the required two-thirds margin.

After passage, the proposed amendment then required endorsement by three-quarters of the state legislature for ratification. It was rapidly passed by most of the northern states, and so its ratification rested with the actions of the southern states, then in constitutional limbo after the collapse of the Confederacy in April 1865. President Andrew Johnson, eager to readmit the southern states to the Union under the "lenient" terms of Reconstruction, told southern legislatures that ratification of the amendment was a prerequisite for restoration to the Union. The southern constitutional conventions were very uncomfortable with this condition, especially the second section of the amendment, which apparently legitimated federal intervention to secure civil rights against state intrusion. Mississippi refused to ratify the amendment altogether, but most southern states complied with the president's emphatic instruction, and the amendment was declared ratified on December 18, 1865. Despite the end of the war, the border states of Kentucky and Delaware had refused to emancipate their slaves, so the amendment had a direct and practical effect in those states. In Oklahoma, slavery was abolished in 1866 by a treaty with the Cherokee Nation, thus bringing a formal end to the institution in the entire United States.

The legal interpretation of the Thirteen Amendment engenders continuing controversy, specifically the section granting Congress enforcement powers. Many proponents of the legislation have offered an expansive view of the amendment, maintaining that it gives Congress the power to overturn all state legislation inconsistent with basic civil liberties. Others have taken a more restrained, narrowly defined view of the powers it grants, arguing that its only purpose is to outlaw slavery.

See also Emancipation in the United States; Slavery; Slavery and the Constitution


Cox, LaWanda, and John H. Cox. Politics, Principle, and Prejudice, 18651866: Dilemma of Reconstruction America. New York: Free Press, 1969.

Hyman, Harold M. A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Maltz, Earl M. Civil Rights, the Constitution, and Congress, 18631869. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

michael w. fitzgerald (1996)
Updated bibliography

Thirteenth Amendment

views updated May 18 2018


Proposed on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. It stated that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment of crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." On January 1, 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War (18611865), President Abraham Lincoln (18611865) issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It was an authority based on congressional acts, and it gave the president authority to confiscate rebel property and forbid the military from returning slaves of rebels to their owners. It therefore addressed only the rebelling southern states and did not resolve the issue of slavery for the nation as a whole. The Thirteenth Amendment (the first of the three so-called "Civil War Amendments") prohibited slavery throughout the country. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments extended the rights of citizenship to all people regardless of race or color.

See also: Civil War (Economic Causes of), Civil War (Economic Impact of), Emancipation Proclamation, Slavery

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