On This Day: The Thirteenth Amendment

On December 6, 1865—147 years ago today—the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery in the United States.

It had been a long time coming. Nearly three years earlier, in January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the rebellious states. (Lincoln had also issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation several months earlier, on September 22, 1862.) Before the end of the Civil War in 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to formally abolish slavery. It would take months, though, before the Amendment was ratified—and President Lincoln, who had fought tirelessly for the Amendment, was assassinated before he could see it ratified.

On December 6, 1865, the amendment finally received the necessary number of state ratifications. Consisting of two sections, the Amendment read as follows:

Section 1: 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.

Section 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Amendment was one of three Reconstruction Era Constitutional amendments. Nineteen months later, the Fourteenth Amendment would be ratified, extending the liberties of the Bill of Rights to former slaves. And, in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment would grant African American men the right to vote. To learn more about the three Reconstruction Amendments, check out this summary from the United States Senate’s website. The Our Documents initiative also provides summaries and the full text of all three amendments: Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and Fifteenth Amendment.

To learn more about the Thirteenth Amendment, and to view a digitized copy, check out this page from the National Archives.

For a chronological list and summary of Reconstruction Era policies, check out this page from the Digital History collection. For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, check out this page from Black Americans in Congress, hosted by the United States House of Representatives’ website.

To learn more about the Thirteenth Amendment, check out Alexander Tsesis’ The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History (NYU Press 2004), and his edited volume, The Promises of Liberty: The History and Contemporary Relevance of the Thirteenth Amendment (Columbia University Press 2010).

To learn more about the abolition of slavery, check out Michael Vorenberg’s Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Cambridge University Press 2001).

The recently released movie, Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis as President Lincoln, was co-written by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and focuses on Lincoln’s drive to pass the Thirteenth Amendment.  To learn more about President Lincoln’s work toward emancipation, check out Harold Holzer and Sara Vaughn Gabbard’s edited volume, Lincoln and Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Southern Illinois University Press 2007). For more on the Emancipation Proclamation, check out William A. Blair and Karen Fisher Younger’s edited volume, Lincoln’s Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered (UNC Press 2009).