On this day in 1865, the US House of Representatives passes the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in the United States, so to speak. The amendment read, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The amendment was ratified by the required number of states on December 6, 1865, eight months after Lincoln’s assassination. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward proclaimed its adoption; it was the first of the three such Reconstruction Amendments promulgated following the American Civil War.
Two years previous, on New Year’s Day 1863, President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves held in the Confederate States of America free. While this edict would not have the force of law until ratification of the 13th Amendment nearly three years later, scholars believe it imbued the Civil War with a purpose far more noble than mere preservation of the adolescent Republic.
In the ramp-up to our Civil War, citizens and leaders of the North had been principally concerned with simply curbing the extension of slavery into Western territories which would eventually achieve statehood within the Union. Under the piss-poor antebellum administrations of Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, there was little if any earnest effort to improve the lot of the nation’s nearly four million African American slaves.
Often citing the Constitution itself as authority for inactivity, while each of these presidents swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend that document, it is plain they used it more as a barricade behind which they hid regarding the “slavery question.” Between 1854 and 1861, the bitter harvest of this amoral dithering manifested itself in the open war for and against slavery known as Bleeding Kansas, and in John Brown’s Rebellion.
With the election of Lincoln and the subsequent, near-immediate secession of the Southern states, the continued tolerance of Southern slavery by Northerners seemed no longer to serve any constructive and compelling political purpose. Emancipation thus quickly changed from a distant possibility to an imminent and feasible eventuality. Lincoln had previously declared that he meant to save the Union as best he could; by preserving slavery, by destroying it, or by destroying part and preserving part. The time had come to go further.
Following the Union’s modestly strategic success at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Lincoln issued an ultimatum calling on the rebelling states to return to their allegiance before the next year, otherwise their slaves would be declared free men. No state returned, and the threatened declaration was issued on January 1, 1863. Word for word, its most salient portion reads as follows:
“And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”
With far less verbal flower, but theoretically carrying the force of Constitutional law, the 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery throughout the United States. Tragically, factors such as Black Codes, deadly white supremacist violence, abject caste-system societal functioning and selective enforcement of statutes continued to subject countless black Americans to involuntary labor and unspeakable abuse, particularly in the South. In contrast to the other Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th Amendment was rarely cited in later case law, but has been used to strike down peonage and some race-based discrimination as “badges and incidents of slavery.”
In legal operation, the 13th Amendment applies to the actions of private citizens, while the 14th and 15th Amendments apply only to state actors. The amendment also enables Congress to pass laws against sex trafficking and other modern forms of slavery.
Sadly, political tribalism, purposeful ignorance, conscientious stupidity and malicious vandalism of our most sacred practices in the American experiment abound.
The struggle continues.