U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment: Abolishing Slavery
“All men are created equal,” proclaims the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson — a lifelong slave owner. How can slavery be lawful in a nation based on equality? This conundrum took a civil war to sort out.
Although the words slave and slavery don’t appear in the original unamended Constitution, slavery was legally established in a number of states, particularly in the South. And there are indirect allusions to slavery in the text of the Constitution. For example, Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 refers to “the Importation of . . . Persons” — clearly a reference to the slave trade. And Article I, Section 2 allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of free persons when calculating state populations for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives — an ironic rule, considering that slaves didn’t have the right to vote!
Changing from emancipation to abolition during the Civil War
The Civil War raged from 1861 to 1865. In the early stages, Lincoln didn’t allow his generals to free slaves in captured territories, and he even reversed their emancipation proclamations. For example, when General John Frémont freed all slaves in Missouri, Lincoln canceled the general’s proclamation and relieved him of his command.
In 1862, in response to a call by a newspaper editor for the total abolition of slavery, Lincoln wrote, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without saving any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.”
Lincoln had long been an advocate of sending freed slaves to colonize Liberia, in West Africa. As President he also championed a succession of schemes of black colonization in Panama and off the coast of Haiti.
Lincoln took the view that the Constitution didn’t give a peacetime President the power to abolish slavery. However, a mass rally of abolitionists in Chicago held in September 1862 calling for an immediate end to slavery placed the President under pressure.
Later the same month, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation as a wartime measure. It freed the slaves living in those states of the Confederacy that had not returned to Union control by January 1, 1863. However, it did not have any effect on the slaves in border states that had remained loyal to the Union. Remarkably, the Proclamation also favored the idea of encouraging African Americans to leave the country and establish settlements elsewhere in the Americas or in Africa.
The radical Republicans, hard-line abolitionists, pressed for the immediate and complete abolition of slavery throughout the nation. They thought Lincoln was pussyfooting around the issue of slavery. So in May 1864 they nominated General John Frémont — the radical abolitionist who had had a run-in with Lincoln earlier in the war — to run against Lincoln for President.
Introducing a different Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
In the meantime, the strongly Republican Senate spearheaded the introduction of a very different thirteenth amendment — one abolishing slavery altogether. This was to become the actual Thirteenth Amendment and is still part of the Constitution today. Section 1 reads as follows:
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.
This amendment was proposed in 1864 while the Civil War was still raging and the slave-owning states of the South still formed part of the breakaway Confederacy. So, an amendment abolishing slavery might have been expected to enjoy widespread support in Congress, from which the Confederate states were excluded.
But in fact abolition was by no means universally popular in the North. For example, Francis Hughes, an influential Pennsylvania Democrat, warned that abolition would flood the state with freed slaves. In the 1862 midterm elections to the House of Representatives, the Republican Party had lost 22 seats, leaving them with only 86 seats out of a total of 185, or just over 46 percent of the seats.
So, although the proposed amendment easily passed the Senate — whose members in those days were not directly elected but appointed by their state legislatures — it was initially rejected by the House of Representatives, which it passed only nine months later, on January 31, 1865.
By this time Lincoln felt much more secure after comfortably winning a second term as President. Congress had taken the initiative over abolition, so Lincoln — always a cautious politician — could now safely come out in its favor. He followed President Buchanan’s example (in regard to the Corwin amendment) by writing by hand on the Joint Resolution of Congress passing the proposed new amendment, “Approved February 1, 1865 — Abraham Lincoln.”
The proposal was quickly ratified by the free states in the North but was rejected by slave states that had remained loyal to the Union, including New Jersey (which had only a handful of slaves), Delaware, and Kentucky. Nevertheless, by the time the Civil War ended in April, 1865, no fewer than 20 states had ratified the proposed amendment — out of a requisite 27, three-fourths of the 36 states then in existence.
The last seven states to complete the ratification process included some southern states under Union occupation. Ratification was completed with the ratification by the occupied state of Georgia on December 6, 1865. By contrast, Mississippi, another Confederate state, which still had its own elected (Democratic Party) governor at the same time, rejected the amendment on December 5, 1865 — and ratified it only on March 16, 1995!
The importance of the slavery issue in the history of the United States cannot be exaggerated. It has generated — and still generates — strong emotions. To put the whole subject in perspective it may be helpful to read two very different accounts of what slavery was like.
First, there is Kenneth M. Stampp’s classic negative portrayal of slavery in a 1956 book titled The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. A very different view of slavery emerges from a 1974 two-volume blockbuster by the Nobel laureate Robert W. Fogel together with Stanley L. Engerman called Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. This radical revisionist work, based on detailed economic data, concluded that the material conditions of slaves compared favorably with those of free industrial workers in the North.