The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution Explained

13th Amendment
The 13th Amendment is known as the Abolition Amendment.

What Was the Thirteenth Amendment?

The 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865 and effectively abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. It ranks as the first of three Reconstruction Amendments in the wake of the American Civil War.

American Civil War reenactment
The 13th Amendment is one of the Reconstruction Amendments.

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 and domestically. 

The United States Constitution did not refer to slaves but did use the term ‘unfree persons.’

Slaves at work
Slaves were legally regarded as property prior to the 13th Amendment.

Slaves were legally regarded as property and could be legally bought and sold. In the Southern states, the slave population grew over the first half of the nineteenth century, and there were around 4 million by 1861. 

Growing opposition to slavery

In the North, abolitionists reflected a growing mood opposing slavery. This happened when the United States government was expanding its territories 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.

Old style kitchen
America’s westward expansion brought the issue of slavery to the forefront of people’s minds.

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 President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War

Then in 1860, President 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. The American Civil War between the North and South ensued.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was determined to end slavery in the United States.

In 1862 President 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. 

US Congress
Congress sent the 13th Amendment to the States for ratification in 1865.

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. 

Twenty-seven states were required to ratify for the amendment to be passed. At the time, there were 36 states, and the Northern states were quick to ratify. 

Mississippi State Capitol
Mississippi did not ratify the 13th Amendment until 1995.

The 27th state to ratify was Georgia in December, which enabled the amendment to be adopted. The last of the 36 states to ratify the amendment was Mississippi, which did so in 1995.

The Abolition Amendment and the Road to Equality

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 every African American.

Civil rights protest
African Americans campaigned for equal rights long after the abolition of slavery.

Unfortunately, there were many other ways in which former slaves and black people generally could be kept in servitude. It took another century before the Civil Rights movement could progress on this issue.

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

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