United States
Fact Checked

What Is the 13th Amendment?

Andy Josiah
Andy Josiah

The 13th Amendment refers to an amendment to the United States Constitution, which is the supreme law of the U.S. It is significant for abolishing and prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude in the country. Additionally, it was the first amendment to the Constitution since the country’s earliest years; the first 12 had been ratified within the first three decades of the country's existence.

In 1808, the U.S. outlawed the international slave trade, which resulted in an unfree labor system in the country that mostly comprised black Africans. Although this meant an end to importing slaves, slavery was still practiced within the U.S. As early as 1839, John Adams, who would go on to become president but was then a representative from Massachusetts, made a legislative proposal to ban domestic slavery, and theorized that a U.S. president could do so, if a civil war should break out, by activating his powers under the War Powers Clause of the Constitution. It was a theory that future president Abraham Lincoln would fulfill during the American Civil War with the Emancipation Proclamation executive order in 1863, which outlawed slavery in the rebelling Confederate states. This eventually led to a number of amendment drafts in Congress by 1864.

The US Constitution.
The US Constitution.

The 13th Amendment comprises two sections. The first one concerns the banning of slavery and involuntary servitude in the U.S., unless in cases of a punishment for a crime. The second section contains the enforcement language of the amendment, granting Congress the power to implement the law.

The Senate passed the 13th Amendment on 8 April 1864 with a 38-to-6 vote. The House of Representatives did so on 31 January 1865 with a vote of 119 to 56. By the end of the year, 30 states had ratified the amendment. Three more followed within the next five years. The last state to ratify the 13th Amendment was Mississippi, which it did on 16 March 1995, after initially rejecting it on 5 December 1865.

Slavery was officially abolished by the 13th Amendment.
Slavery was officially abolished by the 13th Amendment.

The 13th Amendment was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments, which were implemented to specifically reconstruct the former Confederacy and heal the country in the aftermath of the American Civil War. It could not, however, prevent the rise of the Black Codes, unofficial laws that sought to severely limit the basic human rights and civil liberties gained by blacks after the war. The 14th Amendment followed in 1868 to establish state-wide civil rights. The 15th Amendment, the last of the Reconstruction Amendments, extended voting rights to the freed slaves.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


The bit about Mississippi was interesting to me, that the 13th amendment wasn't ratified there until, well, well into my lifetime. It doesn't seem like they ever considered it again after they rejected it, and of course it was law anyway since enough states had ratified it.

I looked into it and apparently, no one really thought of it in the years between; it's not like they considered it every year and decided against or anything. Evidently in 1994, a clerk working in the Texas statehouse happened to notice that Mississippi had never gone back and ratified the amendment. People were naturally a little embarrassed, but some lawmakers thought considering the issue was a waste of time. At any rate, I guess they decided it would somewhat less embarrassing to go ahead and ratify it than to let it remain un-ratified, so they went for it!


To me, the legacy of slavery in our constitution is one the most shameful aspects of American history. The sunsetting of the foreign slave trade was written into the Constitution, as was the three-fifths compromise for counting population and apportioning representation in Congress. And so was a requirement that free states should capture and return escaped slaves.

Thomas Jefferson apparently considered speaking out against slavery in the Declaration of Independence before he and his fellow Founding Fathers remembered that they owned slaves and that radical lifestyle change would be involved in freeing them.

Yes, they were visionaries, but I think it's still important to recognize the limits of their vision. Had their vision of freedom extended to all humankind, there would have been no need for the 13th amendment to the Constitution (or the 15th, 19th, etc.).

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • The US Constitution.
      By: James Steidl
      The US Constitution.
    • Slavery was officially abolished by the 13th Amendment.
      By: iMAGINE
      Slavery was officially abolished by the 13th Amendment.
    • Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation led to the 13th Amendment.
      By: GeoPappas
      Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation led to the 13th Amendment.