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 UnionDelaware, 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 the United States. The 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.

Many Republican 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 legislation."

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.

 

Contributed By:

Robert Fay[1]

 



[1]"Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation,

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