Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution Summary
Resolution Submitting the Thirteenth Amendment to the States
The issue of slavery divided the United States for the first century of its history. When the nation’s founding documents were drafted in the late 1700s, the Southern states made it clear that slavery was an economic necessity. The Northern states uneasily complied, and the new Constitution condoned slavery. The question of slavery festered until 1861, when war erupted between the North and South. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing a significant portion of slaves across the South. However, Congress sought a means to codify the eradication of slavery. Late in 1863, Republican congressmen drafted a bill that prohibited slavery and indentured servitude. That bill transformed into a proposal for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment was passed by the Senate in April of 1864 and by the House in January of 1865, marking one of Lincoln’s final achievements. The Resolution Submitting the Thirteenth Amendment to the States was drafted and approved on February 1, 1865, sending the passed amendment to the states for ratification. The final ratification required was inked by Georgia on December 6, 1865, cementing one of the most important pieces of American legislation.
Summary of the Thirteenth Amendment
The introductory text of the Resolution Submitting the Thirteenth Amendment to the States discusses the requirements which the amendment must fulfill to become law. It cites the amendment’s legislative context: the amendment has been “resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives.” The amendment is offered to the “several States” to be “ratified by three-fourths of said Legislatures.”
Section 1 of the Thirteenth Amendment states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist in the United States.” The only exception withheld is “as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Section 2 simply grants Congress the “power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The Thirteenth Amendment in Action
Although Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation took the first step towards liberation, the Thirteenth Amendment completed and codified that liberation. No longer could Confederates and slaveholders ignore the orders of the White House. During the war, Lincoln was the South’s chief adversary, but by early 1865, the war was ending and Lincoln was returning to the helm of a unified nation. For those reasons, the Thirteenth Amendment carried more weight than the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Thirteenth Amendment also overrode all previous laws that upheld slavery in any fashion. The amendment nullified federal laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act—which protected slaveholders in runaway slave cases—and the Three-Fifths Compromise—which deemed slaves fractions of citizens. Although progressive Republican lawmakers were determined to grant slaves full citizenship, they worried that a greater body of Southern citizens would counterproductively grant the Southern states greater legislative power in the House of Representatives. Republicans sought to curtail such an outcome by drawing former slaves northward.
Despite the significance and power of the Thirteenth Amendment, it did not immediately improve the fates of Southern slaves to the degree that the Republicans had hoped. In many cases, slaves were illegally kept on the plantations they worked. In other cases, slaves left their posts, only to be stricken by famine and poverty, constantly under threat in a hostile landscape. Many worked under a kind of veiled slavery, receiving pittance for their backbreaking labor.
In perhaps the most pernicious circumstances, white Southerners ruthlessly took advantage of the penal exception of the Thirteenth Amendment, which allows indentured servitude “as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” White Southerners devised arbitrary and cruel black codes that subjected blacks to all manner of incrimination. In many cases, merely being black was registered as an offense. Blacks who transgressed against these codes were arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to indentured servitude. Thus, for many years after abolition, Southern slavery continued in all but name.