Slavery was a critical part of the United States from its creation, both as a collection of colonies and as its own entity. The practice was legal in all 13 colonies, and the authors of the Constitution refused to outlaw it while creating the structure of the new government.
In fact, most of the states that seceded during the Civil War claimed that they did so because the US government had infringed on the Constitution by limiting slavery. Because of this, it was necessary to change the Constitution to make sure that slavery could never rise again.
On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which formally prevented slavery within the United States. While it would take nearly a year before it was ratified, it was a huge step in the right direction. Along with the 14th and 15th Amendments, the United States was finally ensuring that the principle that "all men are created equal" was defended by the law.
Historical Context for the 13th Amendment
It's common for people to believe that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the United States, but that is not actually true. Legally speaking, the proclamation only freed slaves in "any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States." This did not include any areas that were not currently fighting the Union, nor did it include any regions that were still part of the Union.
At the time, there were still four states that allowed slavery in the Union, as well as several localities that were explicitly not included in the abolition due to being under Union control. There was also no assurance against slavery beginning in states and territories that might be added to the country in the future.
In addition to the geographic complexities, the legal authority to make such a move was in question from the beginning. The Confederate States didn't consider Lincoln to have any authority over them, and his right to do so even within the United States was weak. Did the executive branch hold such power? Did the legislative? It was decided that only a Constitutional Amendment could be certain to have the necessary power.
Major proponents for a formal abolition bill included James Ashley, James Wilson, and John Henderson, all of whom proposed variations on the text. Notably, a version mentioning "equality before the law" was rejected early in the drafting process.
The legislators seemed worried about going too far with the amendment, with one Senator arguing, "We give the [black man] no right except his freedom. Leave the rest to the states.” Even this was considered controversial, as many felt that former slave owners deserved to be paid for their loss in "property."
From December 1863 to February 1864, different language was proposed for a formal amendment forbidding slavery. They solidified the wording by April 1864, when the Senate passed a predecessor of the 13th Amendment. However, the House of Representatives rejected it repeatedly, keeping it from moving forward.
What happened on January 31, 1865?
It isn't easy to get a Constitutional Amendment passed, so January 31 is only one victory in a long series of battles. However, it is one of the most significant, as it marked the completion of the first step in establishing a new amendment: passing a joint resolution between both houses of Congress.
Unlike passing a standard law, an amendment must be both formally proposed and ratified. A proposal typically requires 2/3 of both Congressional houses to agree on the amendment, though it can also be done through a convention of 2/3 of the state governments instead. Then, 3/4 of the states' legislatures or conventions must agree to ratify.
This process is intentionally difficult, because the founders didn't want future generations to easily change the Constitution. It is only intended to happen for critically important topics, which fundamentally impact the running of the government.
The 13th Amendment was stalled in the first stage until January 31, 1865, when the House of Representatives finally had the requisite 2/3 majority it needed. The next day, President Abraham Lincoln signed the proposed amendment as a sign of his support.
Unfortunately, it would take until December 6, 1865 for the amendment to formally be ratified. There were 36 states at the time, and 27 needed to ratify the new amendment. After the assassination of Lincoln, Andrew Johnson pushed for southern states to agree to the amendment, with Georgia being the final vote needed. Only then was slavery truly outlawed in the United States.
What does the 13th Amendment actually say?
The full text of the 13th Amendment is only two sentences, which makes its direct meaning fairly straightforward. The wording is as follows:
"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.- The 13th Amendment, US Constitution
2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
According to the National Constitution Center, there are three main components in the 13th Amendment: abolition, an exception for criminals, and a right to enforcement.
While the first and last of these is fairly straightforward, the exception for criminal behavior means that slavery was not wholly forbidden. Instead, it was considered a reasonable consequence for committing a crime. This was obviously not seen as contradicting the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments" from the 8th Amendment.
The amendment did, however, contradict Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution, which had previously claimed that any "Person held to Service or Labour" who managed to escape to another state should be returned to the person they worked for. With the elimination of slavery, this clause became irrelevant.
How has the 13th Amendment been interpreted over time?
Law (particularly constitutional law) tends to be more about interpretation than text. With that in mind, it's important to look at the common interpretations of the 13th Amendment beyond ending the traditional practice of African slavery in the United States.
The 13th Amendment was directly intended to end the practice of chattel slavery. However, it has also been used to protect workers of various kinds from unfair working situations, where they are unable to leave or advocate for better conditions.
However, a critical point that the Amendment does not protect against is prison labor, which has been the target of much scrutiny. According to the ACLU, prisoners often earn less than 50 cents per hour for their labor, with seven states not having to pay them anything at all. Given that the Black population is incarcerated at more than 5x the rate of the white population, there have been arguments that prison labor is a modern, legal form of slavery.
The second section of the Thirteenth Amendment allows Congress the right to pass laws to eliminate slavery, but the Supreme Court generally also allows laws to be passed based on the vaguely-constructed “badges and incidents of slavery.”
Although the details of these vestiges of slavery are largely up the judge's discretion, the expanded meaning of the 13th Amendment allows an avenue for future cases to chip away at structures that support racial disparity.
While the 13th Amendment didn't solve all problems related to slavery, it was a powerful legal move, intended to ensure that slavery (as it existed then) would never again be a normal part of American society.
There is still a long way to go for true equality in the United States. After all, it took Mississippi nearly 150 years to ratify the 13th Amendment, a testament to how reluctant some states were, even long after slavery was outlawed. Even so, January 31st should be recognized as an essential anniversary of progress towards racial equality.
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