Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Thirteenth (13th) Amendment Definition:

An 1865 amendment to the US Constitution that forbids slavery and forced labor except, as regards the latter, as punishment for crime.

Related Terms: Eleventh (11th) Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment

In 1863 President Lincoln had issued an Emancipation Proclamation in which he stated his government's policy, that:

".... all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Unfortunately, civil war was raging and a public statement by a President does not law make in territory where the Union Army had no say; to wit, the Southern Confederate States of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee.

There was a formal process to amend the US Constitution, something Lincoln had to finesse through Congress even with the Civil War raging. That war, which started in April of 1861, ended only on April 9, 1865, after the death of 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.

The 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.""

the 13th AmendmentLincoln hoped that the composition of the Congress, as it was during the Civil War with Southern State congressmen absent from their seats, would pass easily and complete his anti-slavery policy for his United States.

But it had been a struggle. The US Senate passed it on the first attempt, in 1864.

On February 15, 1864, the vote in the House of Representatives on the proposed Thirteenth Amendment failed with only 78 votes in favor and 62 against. A two-third majority was required since it was a constitutional amendment.

On June 1864, the House again failed to get the necessary majority.

But then, in November 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected to the presidency in landslide and he took the election result as a vote of confidence in his 13th Amendment.

Finally, the 13th Amendment was passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865. The voting had been a squeaker: 119 for and 56 against, two votes over the constitutionally required two-thirds majority.

Harper's Weekly had a reporter on the premises:

"On January 31, 1865, the House resumed discussion before a standing-room-only crowd in the galleries above the floor. When the vote was taken that day, the Thirteenth Amendment achieved a two-vote margin above the needed two-thirds majority, 119-56. The galleries erupted in boisterous applause, which was then joined by congressman on the House floor. In the final vote, all 86 Republicans had voted in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment, along with 15 Democrats, 14 Unconditional Unionists, and 4 Union men; opposition came from 50 Democrats and 6 Union men."

Tragically, on April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, a Southern sympathizer.

By December of 1865, the Amendment was ratified when it was approved by enough states of the union to surpass the constitutionally required three-quarters of the states (27 of 36).


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