The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution Explained

13th Amendment


The 13th Amendment was passed and ratified in 1865 and effectively abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. It ranks as the first of three Reconstruction Amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War.

Historical background

Slavery had been present in the American colonies before independence. There had been domestic slaves in the northern colonies, but the southern colonies used slaves to work the plantations, as laborers, as well as domestically. The Constitution of the newly established United States did not refer to slaves but did use the term unfree persons’.

Slaves were legally regarded as property and could be bought and sold quite legitimately. In the Southern states, the slave population grew over the first half of the nineteenth century, there is some 4 million by 1861. In the north, abolitionists reflected a growing mood opposing slavery. This was happening at a time when the United States was expanding westward at a rapid rate.

This expansion begged the question of whether slavery was going to be allowed in the new territories being populated by pioneers across the Midwest. The Mexican-American War brought new territory under US control, and action was needed to prevent conflict over the slavery issue.

California entered the Union as a slavery-free state, as did Maine. Missouri was allowed to join as a slave state, but all the territory acquired from Mexico was left in limbo. Eventually, they were allowed to decide for themselves. Slave ownership and trade was forbidden in Washington DC. Tensions between North and South rose regardless of attempts to defuse the situation.

The role of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War

Then in 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a critic of slavery brought matters to a head. In the months after his election the Southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. War between the North and South followed.

In 1862 Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation which banned slavery in the Southern states. Another proclamation followed offering amnesty to those Southern states that abolished slavery and peacefully re-joined the Union. There were no takers.

Passing the 13th Amendment

Over the next two years, various proposals for a Constitutional Amendment were made, but none were acceptable. Lincoln won re-election in 1864 and made the passage of the 13th Amendment his top priority. It passed Congress and was sent to the states for ratification in February 1865. 27 states had to ratify for the amendment to be passed. At the time there were 36 states, and the northern states were quick to ratify. The 27th state to ratify was Georgia in December, and this enabled the amendment to be adopted. The last of the 36 states to ratify the amendment was Mississippi, and it did so in 1995.


The 13th Amendment was quite straightforward in its abolition of slavery and the slave trade. It was a milestone along the road to equal rights for black people in America. Unfortunately, there were many other ways in which former slaves and black people generally could be kept in servitude, and it was to take another century before the Civil Rights movement could achieve progress on this issue.

Even today, the Black Lives Matter movement is still pressing for equal rights for black people and the outlawing of unnecessary violence against them.

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