The 13th Amendment to the Constitution
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution declared that “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.” Formally abolishing slavery in the United States, the 13th Amendment was passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, along with the 14th amendment and the 15th amendment, are the three Reconstruction amendments.
Text of the 13th Amendment
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.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
History of the Passing of the 13th Amendment
Written by John G. Hay and John Nicolay, President Lincoln’s private secretaries. This article appeared in The Century; a popular quarterly, Volume 38, Issue 6, Oct 1889.
We have enumerated with some detail the series of radical anti-slavery measures enacted at the second session of the Thirty-seventh Congress, which ended July 17, 1862, the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia; the prohibition of slavery in the national Territories; the practical repeal of the fugitive slave law; and the sweeping measures of confiscation which in different forms decreed, forfeiture of slave property for the crimes of treason and rebellion. When this wholesale legislation was supplemented by the President’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, and his final edict of freedom of January 1, 1863, the institution had clearly received its coup de grace in all except the loyal border States. Consequently, the third session of the Thirty-seventh Congress ending March 4, 1863, occupied itself with this phase of the slavery question only to the extent of an effort to put into operation the President’s plan of compensated abolishment. That effort took practical shape in a bill to give the State of Missouri fifteen million on condition that she would emancipate her slaves; but the proposition failed, largely through the opposition of a few conservative members from Missouri, and the session adjourned without having by its legislation advanced the destruction of slavery.
When Congress met again in December 1863 and organized by the election of Schuyler Colfax of Indiana as Speaker, the whole situation had undergone a further change. The Union arms had been triumphant — Gettysburg had been won and Vicksburg had capitulated; Lincoln edict of freedom had become an accepted fact; fifty regiments of negro soldiers carried bayonets in the Union armies; Vallandigham had been beaten for governor in Ohio by a hundred thousand majority; the draft had been successfully enforced in every district of every loyal State in the Union. Under these brightening prospects, military and political, the more progressive spirits in Congress took up anew the suspended battle with slavery which the institution had itself invited by its unprovoked assault on the life of the Government.
The Presidents reference to the subject in his annual message was very brief:
The movements [said he] by State action for emancipation in several of the States not included in the Emancipation Proclamation are matters of profound gratulation. And while I do not repeat in detail what I have heretofore so earnestly urged upon this subject, my general views and feelings remain unchanged; and I trust that Congress will omit no fair opportunity of aiding these important steps to a great consummation.
His language had reference to Maryland, where during the autumn of 1863 the question of emancipation had been actively discussed by political parties, and where at the election of November 4, 1863, a legislature had been chosen to contain a considerable majority pledged to emancipation. More especially did it refer to Missouri, where, notwithstanding the failure of the fifteen million compensation bill at the previous session, a State convention had actually passed an ordinance of emancipation, though with such limitations as rendered it unacceptable to the more advanced public opinion of the State. Prudence was the very essence of President Lincoln’s statesmanship, and he doubtless felt it was not safe for the Executive to venture farther at that time. We are like whalers, he said to Governor Morgan one day, who have been on a long chase: we have at last got the harpoon into the monster, but we must now look how we steer, or with one flop of his tail he will yet send us all into eternity.
Senators and members of the House, especially those representing anti-slavery States or districts, did not need to be so circumspect.
It was doubtless with this consciousness that J. M. Ashley, a Republican representative from Ohio, and James F. Wilson, a Republican representative from Iowa, on the 4th of December, 1863, that being the earliest opportunity after the House was organized, introduced, the former a bill and the latter a joint resolution to propose to the several States an amendment of the Constitution prohibiting slavery throughout the United States. Both the propositions were referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, of which Mr. Wilson was chairman; but before he made any report on the subject it had been brought before the Senate, where its discussion attracted marked public attention.
Senator John B. Henderson, who with rare courage and skill had, as a progressive conservative, made himself one of the leading champions of Missouri emancipation, on the 11th of January, 1864, introduced into the Senate a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution that slavery shall not exist in the United States.1 It is not probable that either he or the Senate saw any near hope of success in such a measure. The resolution went to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, where it caused some discussion, but apparently without being treated as a matter of pressing importance. Nearly a month had elapsed when Mr. Sumner also introduced a joint resolution, proposing an amendment that Everywhere within the limits of the United States, and of each State or Territory thereof, all persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave. He asked its reference to the select committee on slavery, of which he was chairman; but several senators argued that such an amendment properly belonged to the Committee on the Judiciary, and in this reference, Mr. Sumner finally acquiesced. It is possible that this slight and courteously worded rivalry between the two committees induced earlier action than would otherwise have happened, for two days later — February 10 — Mr. Trumbull, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, reported back a substitute in the following language, differing from the phraseology of both Mr. Sumner and Mr. Henderson:
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.
SECT. 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Even after the Committee on the Judiciary by this report had adopted the measure, it was evidently thought to be merely in an experimental or trial stage, for more than six weeks elapsed before the Senate again took it up for action. On the 28th of March, however, Mr. Trumbull formally opened debate upon it in an elaborate speech. The discussion was continued from time to time until April 8. As the Republicans had almost unanimous control of the Senate, their speeches, though able and eloquent, seemed perfunctory and devoted to a foregone conclusion. Those which attracted most attention were the arguments of Reverdy Johnson of Maryland and Mr. Henderson of Missouri, senators representing slave States, advocating the amendment. Senator Sumner, whose pride of erudition amounted almost to vanity, pleaded earnestly for his phrase, All persons are equal before the law, copied from the Constitution of revolutionary France. But Mr. Howard of Michigan, one of the soundest lawyers and clearest thinkers of the Senate, pointed out the inapplicability of the words, and declared it safer to follow the Ordinance of 1787, with its historical associations and its well-adjudicated meaning.
There was, of course, from the first no doubt whatever that the Senate would pass the constitutional amendment, the political classification of that body being thirty-six Republicans, five Conditional Unionists, and nine Democrats. Not only was the whole Republican strength, thirty-six votes, cast in its favor, but two Democrats, Reverdy Johnson of Maryland and James W. Nesmith of Oregon, with a political wisdom far in advance of their party, also voted for it, giving more than the two-thirds required by the Constitution.
When, however, the joint resolution went to the House of Representatives there was such a formidable party strength arrayed against it as to foreshadow its failure. The party classification of the House stood one hundred and two Republicans, seventy-five Democrats, and nine from the border States, leaving but little chance of obtaining the required two-thirds in favor of the measure. Nevertheless there was sufficient Republican strength to secure its discussion; and when it came up on the 31st of May the first vote showed seventy-six to fifty-five against rejecting the joint resolution.
We may infer that the conviction of the present hopelessness of the measure greatly shortened the debate upon it. The question occupied the House only on three different days the 3ist of May, when it was taken up, and the 4th and 5th of June. The speeches in opposition all came from Democrats; the speeches in its favor all came from Republicans, except one. From its adoption the former predicted the direst evils to the Constitution and the Republic; the latter the most beneficial results in the restoration of the country to peace and the fulfillment of the high destiny intended for it by its founders. Upon the final question of its passage the vote stood: yeas, ninety-three; nays, sixty-five; absent or not voting, twenty-three. Of those voting in favor of the resolution eighty-seven were Republicans and four were Democrats. Those voting against it were all Democrats. The resolution, not having secured a two-thirds vote, was thus lost; seeing which Mr. Ashley, Republican, who had the measure in charge, changed his vote so that he might, if occasion arose, move its reconsideration.
The ever-vigilant public opinion of the loyal States, intensified by the burdens and anxieties of the war, took up this far-reaching question of abolishing slavery by constitutional amendment with an interest fully as deep as that manifested by Congress. Before the joint resolution had failed in the House of Representatives the issue was already transferred to discussion and prospective decision in a new forum.
When on the 7th of June, 1864, the National Republican Convention met in Baltimore, the two most vital thoughts which animated its members were the re-nomination of President Lincoln and the success of the constitutional amendment. The first was recognized as a popular decision needing only the formality of republican government, justice and the national safety demand its Litter and complete extirpation from the soil of the Republic; and that while we uphold and maintain the acts and proclamations by which the Government in its own defense has aimed a death blow at this gigantic evil, we are in favor, furthermore, of such an amendment to the Constitution, to be made by the people, in conformity with its provisions, as shall terminate and forever prohibit the existence of slavery within the limits or the jurisdiction of the United States.
We have related elsewhere how upon this and the other declarations of the platform:
Resolved. That as slavery was the cause and now constitutes the strength of this rebellion, and as it must always and everywhere hostile to the principles of republican government, justice and the national safety demand its utter and complete extirpation from the soil of the Republic; and that while we uphold and maintain the acts and proclamations by which the Government in its own defense has aimed a death blow at this gigantic evil, we are in favor, furthermore, of such an amendment to the Constitution, to be made by the people, in conformity with its provisions, as shall terminate and forever prohibit the existence of slavery within the limits or the jurisdiction of the United States.
Upon this and other declarations of the platform, the Republican party went to battle and gained an overwhelming victory a popular majority of 411,281, an electoral majority of 191, and a House of Representatives of 138 Unionists to 35 Democrats. In view of this result, the President was able to take up the question with confidence among his official recommendations; and in the annual message which he transmitted to Congress on the 6th of December, 1864, he urged upon the members whose terms were about to expire, the propriety of at once carrying into effect the clearly expressed popular will. Said He:
At the last session of Congress a proposed amendment of the Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the United States, passed the Senate, but failed, for lack of the requisite two-thirds vote, in the House of Representatives. Although the present is the same Congress, and nearly the same members, and without questioning the wisdom or patriotism of those who stood in opposition, I venture to recommend the reconsideration and passage of the measure at the present session. Of course the abstract question is not changed; but, an intervening election shows, almost certainly, that the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not. Hence, there is only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States for their action. And, as it is to so go at all events, may we not agree that the sooner the better? It is not claimed that the election has imposed a duty any further than, as an additional element to be considered, their judgment may be affected by it. It is the voice of the people, now for the first time heard upon the question. In a great national crisis like ours unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable — almost indispensable. And yet, no approach to unanimity is attainable unless some deference shall be paid to the will of the majority, simply because it is the will of the majority. In this case, the common end is the maintenance of the Union; and, among the means to secure that end, such will, through the election, is most clearly declared in favor of such constitutional amendment.
On the 15th of December, Mr. Ashley gave notice that he would, on the 6th of January, 1865, call up the constitutional amendment for reconsideration; and accordingly on the day appointed he opened the new debate upon it in an earnest speech. General discussion followed from time to time, occupying perhaps half the days of the month of January. As at the previous session, the Republicans all favored, while the Democrats mainly opposed it, but the important exceptions among the latter showed what immense gains the proposition had made in popular opinion and in congressional willingness to recognize and embody it. The logic of events had become more powerful than party creed or strategy. For fifteen years the Democratic party had stood as sentinel and bulwark to slavery; and yet, despite its alliance and championship, the peculiar institution was being consumed like dry leaves in the fire of war. For a whole decade it had been defeated in every great contest of congressional debate and legislation. It had withered in popular elections, been paralyzed by confiscation laws, crushed by Executive decrees, trampled upon by marching Union armies. More notable than all, the agony of dissolution had come upon it in its final stronghold the constitutions of the slave States. Local public opinion had throttled it in West Virginia, in Missouri, in Arkansas, in Louisiana, in Maryland; and the same spirit of change was upon Tennessee, and even showing itself in Kentucky.