Amendment XIII to the United States Constitution

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Amendment XIII to the United States Constitution


By: Lyman Trumbull

Date: 1865

Source: The National Archives Experience. "The Charters of Freedom. The Constitution: Amendments 11–27 <>

About the Author: Lyman Trumbull represented the state of Illinois in the United States Senate from 1855 to 1873. A former schoolteacher who studied law and became a lawyer before entering the Senate, Trumbull switched from Democrat to the Republican as a result of the slavery issue, though he returned to the Democratic party during an unsuccessful bid to become the Governor of Illinois.


Slavery had been a part of United States society for more than three centuries when tension over the issue peaked in the mid-nineteenth century. As new states readied for admittance as "slave" or "free" under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, the question of slavery continued to spark fierce debate, as evidenced in the 1846 Wilmot Proviso. Violence erupted in "Bleeding Kansas" during the 1850s, an illustration of the growing divide between the North and the South that led, finally, to Civil War in 1861.

Each side in the debate used religion, politics, economics, and physiological studies to make its case. Abolitionists called for an end to the slave system on moral and religious grounds. Slavery supporters argued that the South's power as a cotton source stemmed from slave labor; they also cited Bible verses to support their cause. Proslavery religious leaders such as Samuel Blanchard How wrote:

Does the Apostle then teach the slaves that they ought to be free? That their Christian masters sin in holding them in bondage? And does he, with apostolic authority and in the name of Jesus Christ, command the masters to give them their freedom? He does nothing of the kind. He not only does not require these Christian masters to set their slaves at liberty, but he speaks of them as "faithful and beloved" brethren, "partakers of the benefit," and for this very reason he exhorts Christian slaves not to despise them, but rather to do them service. It seems impossible for the question before us to be more fully and directly settled.

By the middle of the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, came to realize that nothing short of a constitutional amendment would end the slavery question, and thus help end the war. During his bid for the presidency, Lincoln had campaigned on a platform that would bring no new slave states into the union, but permit slavery to continue in existing slave states. His attempt to appease both sides did nothing to prevent the first battle of the Civil War just six weeks into his term.

In 1863 and 1864 Lincoln spoke with Republican Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull about the prospects of a constitutional amendment to ban slavery. While southerners were concerned that the 4 million slaves might revolt, steal, or cause complete chaos if freed, Lincoln worried that his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed slaves in all territories not controlled by the Union, would be invalidated if the Constitution was not amended to end slavery.

Trumbull, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote the first draft of what would become the Thirteenth Amendment; it passed the Senate by a 38–6 vote on April 8, 1864, but failed to get through the House of Representatives. Lincoln, preparing for the amendment's eventual ratification, looked ahead to the three-fourths of states that needed to be ready to ratify the abolition of slavery. On October 31, 1864, Nevada was admitted into the union as a free state, even though it did not meet the minimum population required for statehood. The Thirteenth Amendment made its way through the House of Representatives and was ratified on December 18, 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.


By invalidating all state laws permitting slavery, as well as local, state, and federal court decisions, including Dred Scott v. Sanford, which declared slaves and former slaves ineligible for citizenship, the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified after Lincoln's assassination, accomplished what Lincoln had hoped to achieve with the Emancipation Proclamation. It removed a contentious issue from politics, shored up Republican support, gave Reconstruction a core concept around which to build, and fulfilled a campaign promise.

By granting 4 million former slaves the basic right of freedom from forced servitude, the Thirteenth Amendment changed race relations in the former slave states. While attitudes did not change overnight, laws did, and the federal government used a variety of tactics to enforce the new amendment. By creating the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen's Bureau, the federal government provided former slaves with needed supplies, food, and land. This action angered poor whites who experienced the devastation of the Civil War and Reconstruction, reinforcing resentment toward former slaves who now flooded into low-wage positions and crowded out poorer white workers.

Southern states, however, found ways to work around the new amendment, passing state laws that limited labor options for former slaves, removed parental rights for former slaves whose children entered into apprenticeship, and created extremely broad vagrancy laws that jailed anyone those charged with vagrancy and forced them to perform unpaid labor as the criminal sentence. These "black codes" reinforced the separation of the races in the South, along with later laws that banned interracial marriage and mandated separate schools and public facilities for separate races. The Thirteenth Amendment shaped social and civil life for former slaves, their families, and white Americans alike after the Civil War, as the nation rebuilt itself with new legal principles while balancing old prejudices.



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

How, Samuel Blanchard. Slaveholding Not Sinful. New Brunswick, NJ: J. Terhune's Press, 1856.

Lerner, Gerda.The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition. Chapel Hill, NC: 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.