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What Is the 13th Amendment?

The 13th Amendment is a transformative milestone in American history, marking the official abolition of slavery in 1865. It represents a pivotal step towards equality, legally ending the inhumane practice and setting a precedent for civil rights progress. How did this amendment reshape the nation's social and legal landscape? Explore its lasting impact on American society with us.
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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the 13th Amendment and when was it ratified?

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation led to the 13th Amendment.
Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation led to the 13th Amendment.

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution formally abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, by the House on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the required number of states on December 6, 1865. This amendment marked a pivotal moment in American history, legally ending the institution of slavery that had been a contentious issue since the nation's founding.

How did the 13th Amendment change the legal landscape of the United States?

By abolishing slavery, the 13th Amendment significantly altered the legal and social landscape of the United States. It transformed millions of African Americans from property into citizens with rights, although the struggle for equality continued through subsequent legislation and social movements. The amendment also laid the groundwork for later civil rights advancements, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

What impact did the 13th Amendment have on former slaves?

The 13th Amendment had a profound impact on former slaves, granting them legal freedom and laying the foundation for their rights as American citizens. However, the transition from slavery to freedom was fraught with challenges, including economic hardship, social discrimination, and the rise of Black Codes that sought to restrict the newly gained freedoms. Despite these obstacles, the amendment represented a crucial step towards equality and justice.

Are there any exceptions to the prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude in the 13th Amendment?

Yes, there is a notable exception within the 13th Amendment itself. While it abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, it allows for an exception as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. This clause has been the subject of much debate and criticism, as it has been linked to the practice of convict leasing and the disproportionate incarceration rates among African Americans.

How does the 13th Amendment continue to influence American society today?

The 13th Amendment continues to influence American society by serving as a cornerstone for civil rights and by being cited in legal arguments against practices resembling slavery, such as human trafficking and forced labor. Its legacy is also evident in ongoing discussions about criminal justice reform and mass incarceration, as activists and scholars argue that the penal labor exception perpetuates a form of modern-day slavery.

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Discussion Comments

jennythelib

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!

ElizaBennett

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.).

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    • 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.