Thirteenth Amendment of the United States
Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation, document that signaled the government's commitment to ending slavery, which was followed by the
constitutional amendment that officially abolished slavery in the United States.
The Thirteenth Amendment is best understood against
the background of the American Civil War. Although President Abraham Lincoln personally opposed slavery,
ending slavery was not one of his administration's initial war aims. Instead he
sought to "save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery." As president, Lincoln
had sworn to uphold the Constitution; the Supreme Court had affirmed the constitutionality
of slavery in its 1857 Dred Scott decision. As Southern states
seceded, Lincoln had serious concerns about keeping the four border states in the Union — Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri — and about the loyalty of Northern Democrats. Also, he had
promised slaveholders who were loyal to the federal government that they would
be able to keep their slaves. Lincoln
had first attempted to convince slaveholders in the border states gradually to eliminate slavery in return for compensation, but
the slaveholders refused.
Lincoln's commitment to winning the war led him by 1862 to see
emancipation as a necessity because he realized that slaves were a vital
component of the Southern economy and that freeing slaves would destabilize the
South. Thus, in July 1862, Congress passed two laws regarding slaves. The first
was a confiscation act that freed slaves from owners who had rebelled against
second was a militia act that enabled the president to use freed slaves in the
army. In this context, Lincoln was prepared to use presidential war powers to emancipate slaves
in the rebel states.
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring that slaves in all states still at war with the
federal government were free and would remain so. While taking care to exempt
border slave states and the three Confederate states that the Union controlled, Lincoln
nevertheless endorsed the idea of recruiting freed slaves and free blacks for
service in the armed forces. The Emancipation Proclamation, however,
technically freed no one, because Lincoln's
authority was not recognized in the Confederacy.
Party members recognized that the proclamation was only a
war measure that might have no lasting impact on the institution of slavery.
Still, its effect was to signal the federal government's opposition to slavery
and to bolster the abolitionist cause. The war ceased to be one aimed only at saving the Union and became a war
to end slavery as well. An initial stream of escaping slaves slowly expanded to
become a flood of runaways. In response to the proclamation's endorsement of
black military enlistment, more than 180,000 blacks enrolled in the army and
10,000 in the navy by the end of the war (see
Blacks in the American Military).
A variety of forces began to press for a
constitutional amendment to abolish slavery permanently. Women's groups were in
the forefront in this battle, particularly the National Women's Loyal League, a
predominantly white organization led by suffragists Susan B. Anthony and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They believed that chattel slavery as practiced in the United States was closely linked to women's inferior place in society, and that
progress in one area could result in progress in another. The Republican Party
outlined support for such an amendment in its 1864 platform. Lincoln,
after winning the1864 presidential election, began pushing Congress to pass an
amendment, using both his electoral mandate and his political skills to
overcome Democratic opposition.
Early in 1865, shortly before the end of the Civil
War and Lincoln's assassination, Congress approved the amendment. The simplicity
and brevity belies the fundamental changes it made to American society. Section
1 states 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." Section 2
gives Congress the "power to enforce this article by appropriate
Although it was approved by Congress, the amendment
had to be ratified by three-fourths of the states before becoming part of the
Constitution. Most Northern states had ratified it, but it was up to President
Andrew Johnson, who assumed the presidency after Lincoln's
assassination in April 1865, to secure the necessary approval from Southern
states. Johnson set very lenient terms for Southern reentry into American
political society (see Reconstruction), but he required that Southern states ratify the amendment as a
condition of readmission. Many state constitutional conventions, including
those of Delaware and Kentucky, which had never outlawed slavery, opposed this requirement.
Southern states especially disliked the second section, which provided for
federal intervention if slavery were practiced. Johnson's tactics gained
cooperation of enough states and the amendment was ratified on December 18, 1865, finally abolishing legalized slavery throughout the United States.