The Thirteenth Amendment

The thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States put an end to slavery in the United States.

This amendment was 200 years in the making and is an epic story. Let's find out more about what it is and the story of how it came to pass.

A house divided

The practice of slavery goes back thousands of years; there hardly is a people that has not has slavery sometime in their history. In the United States, the practice began with people becoming bondservants – people who were put into temporary slavery for a certain number of years to pay for their passage to the new world. This, sadly, grew into having a group of people being slaves for life.

This is not to say that everyone agreed with the idea. Many, including Benjamin Franklin, thought of slavery as evil. Thomas Jefferson disliked the practice and in his original version of the Declaration of Independence included it as one of the charges against King George. It originally read

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

Representatives from the southern colonies wanted this bit removed. It was agreed to remove it in the spirit of unity in the fight for independence.

We should show some forgiveness to the founding father for this. After all, for many, slavery was already fading into history. Why risk independence over a practice that, to some, would die away in a generation or two anyway? And it looked like such was going to be the case, had it not been for the invention of the cotton gin. "Ginning" is the combing of cotton to remove the seeds, a very long, difficult process. The cotton gin, however, was a machine that could do the job quickly and easily.

Cotton suddenly became very profitable – “white gold” they started calling it. Cotton plantations sprung up and the want for slavery with it. An evil but dying practice then quickly became an evil but big money-making practice. The demand for slaves went through the roof.

Great news for some, awful news for others.

A new sheriff in town

The first several decades of the life of the young nation were spent with it suffering from multiple personality disorder. One part saw no problem with slavery and wanted to expand it to new states. For others, it was an evil that must die.

One such man was Abraham Lincoln.

After serving in the United States Congress he left discouraged, deciding to give up politics and focus on his law practice. Then the controversy over new slave states being added to the Union got his goat. All his life he hated slavery, now he returned to politics with a desire to act against all slavery. He switched to the new Republican party because it was formed as an anti-slavery party.

This would take him to the White House as President.

To many southerners, the election of Lincoln was the final straw and they decided to declare themselves no longer a member of the United States. They left, or succeeded, to form their own nation – the Confederate States of America.

The civil war was on!

Let the people go

President Abraham Lincoln, as stated above, hated slavery. For him, it went against everything we value in the United States. In his own words

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

Yet in 1861 when he became President he saw as his most important job the keeping the Union together. Again, in his own words

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

Now go forward to 1862.

The war was not going as well for the Union army as President Lincoln would like; he needed some more means to weaken the south's means to continue the war.

And he still hates slavery.

Combining both, he issues an executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation.

The order states that all slaves in any state that did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863, will be set free and the army and navy are directed to help set them free.

Untitled watercolor by Henry Lewis Stevens of a man reading a newspaper with headline “Presidential Proclamation”, 1863

This was a great step towards ending slavery, but it had some major limits:

Still, as the war went on word did get out to the slaves. And as the Union armies advanced through the south the slaves got freed anyway. But one concern still bothered the President, and that was that his order could not completely do away with slavery. There was no stopping slavery from starting again after the end of the war.

There had to be a better way.

A more perfect plan

The only solution to ending slavery once and for all had to be at the Federal level – an action by the government of the United States. But simply passing an anti-slavery law would not due.

The only solution then was to add a change, called an amendment, to the Constitution itself. The 13th amendment. By 1863 such a change was proposed, but it wasn't until April 7, 1865, that it was passed through congress.

President Lincoln worked hard to get this amendment ratified or approved by the states.

He would never live to see it passed.

He was killed 8 days later, and the amendment was ratified that December.

The text of the amendment is as follows:

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.

For the first time in the United States slavery, outside of that due to a person committing a crime, is outlawed and Congress could pass laws to see to it that this remains the case.

A Visit from the Old Mistress by Winslow Homer (1876). This depicts an awkward meeting between former slaves and former master.

This had been a long time coming, coming at the end of the worst war in the history of the United States; a war that would, in the words of President Lincoln, be so “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Or, in the words of the song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic:

As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free, While God is marching on”

Great films


(1989) Movie of the 54th Massachusetts, the second volunteer black unit in the Union Army. Very good movie, but has language and battle scenes as to be expected.

On the web

The 13th Amendment Explained: The Constitution for Dummies

A video going over the history behind the 13th amendment.

The Emancipation Proclamation

History of, and the meaning of, the Emancipation Proclamation.

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