Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

This first of the three Civil War amendments brought a final and definitive end to slavery in the United States but did not by itself confer civil rights on former slaves.

Summary of Event

The antislavery and abolition movements in the United States did not begin with the Civil War (1861-1865). As early as 1652, the state of Rhode Island Rhode Island;slavery in passed antislavery legislation. In 1773, Benjamin Franklin Franklin, Benjamin
[p]Franklin, Benjamin;and abolitionism[Abolitionism] and Dr. Benjamin Rush Rush, Benjamin formed the first abolition society in America. In 1832, the New England Anti-Slavery Society New England Anti-Slavery Society[New England AntiSlavery Society] was formed by newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, who also helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society American Anti-Slavery Society[American AntiSlavery Society] in 1833. The Society of Friends, Quakers;and abolitionism[Abolitionism] or Quakers, a religious group who settled early in the history of the United States, were also active in the antislavery movement. Their religion forbade the holding of slaves. Quakers primarily settled in the northern part of the country. Constitution, U.S.;Thirteenth Amendment
Thirteenth Amendment
Slavery;and Thirteenth Amendment[Thirteenth Amendment]
[kw]Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified (Dec. 6, 1865)
[kw]Amendment Is Ratified, Thirteenth (Dec. 6, 1865)
[kw]Ratified, Thirteenth Amendment Is (Dec. 6, 1865)
Constitution, U.S.;Thirteenth Amendment
Thirteenth Amendment
Slavery;and Thirteenth Amendment[Thirteenth Amendment]
[g]United States;Dec. 6, 1865: Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified[3890]
[c]Human rights;Dec. 6, 1865: Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified[3890]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 6, 1865: Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified[3890]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 6, 1865: Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified[3890]
Douglass, Frederick
[p]Douglass, Frederick;and Thirteenth Amendment
Garrison, William Lloyd
[p]Garrison, William Lloyd;and Thirteenth Amendment
Owen, Robert Dale

In 1807, federal legislation was passed outlawing the importation of slaves after January 1, 1808. However, that law did not end the use of slaves in the United States. The writers of the U.S. Constitution had not been able to resolve the issue of slavery in 1787 and had declared that the slave trade could end by 1808 or anytime later. Eventually, the inability of national leaders to resolve this issue would divide the nation. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 banned slavery in most of the western states and territories. This was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1857, in the infamous Dred Scott decision.

By the 1850’s, the split between the slave and free states was well entrenched. In an attempt to appease pro- and antislavery proponents, Congress adopted five provisions in the Compromise of 1850. The most notable was the Second Fugitive Slave Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 Law, passed in 1850. It provided for slaves who escaped from the South and were found in northern antislavery states to be returned to their owners. A great deal of violence erupted over this legislation, which led to the act’s repeal on June 28, 1864. Meanwhile, the split between the North and the South eventually resulted in the Civil War.

The abolitionist movement had fought for decades for an end to slavery. Robert Dale Owen Owen, Robert Dale , an abolitionist and legislator, struggled for the emancipation of slaves and is thought to have influenced President Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and slavery[Slavery] with his tract Policy of Emancipation (1863). Another radical opponent of slavery was Wendell Phillips Phillips, Wendell , a noted speaker and a graduate of Harvard Law School. He believed that the U.S. Constitution Constitution, U.S.;and slavery[Slavery] supported slavery and therefore was owed no allegiance by abolitionists. Harriet Tubman Tubman, Harriet was active in the Underground Railroad, Underground Railroad which was successful in bringing many slaves into northern states that would not return them to their owners. John Brown Brown, John adopted more violent means of expressing his abolitionist sentiment. He raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and encouraged a slave revolt. He was eventually hanged for his fanaticism. Frederick Douglass was an important abolitionist who played a significant role in the passage toward freedom for the slaves. A runaway slave, he spoke eloquently about the need to redress the wrongs created by slavery.

After the Civil War began in April, 1861, the abolitionist movement placed greater pressure on President Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;Emancipation Proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation (1863) to issue an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln had focused a great deal of attention on the issue of slavery during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln finally issued his Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, well after the war started. His proclamation announced that in states that had seceded from the union, all slaves would be freed effective January 1, 1863. This proclamation did not actually free many slaves. It did not apply to slave states that were still part of the Union and was unenforceable in those states involved in the Confederacy. The major function of the Emancipation Proclamation was to announce to all that one of the Union’s goals in the Civil War was to end slavery. Also, as Union troops occupied Confederate territories, they freed the slaves in the areas they controlled.

At the time that the war began, the African American African Americans;demographics population of the United States consisted of approximately 4.5 million people, 4 million of whom were slaves. White supremacy was the general ideology of both southerners and northerners. Slaves were denied such rights as the right to legal marriage, Marriage;and slavery[Slavery] choice of residence, and education, and existed in perpetual servitude. Without significant changes in institutional structures, there was no hope of freedom.

The Thirteenth Amendment was one of three amendments known as the Civil War amendments. The combined purpose of these three amendments was to free the slaves and promote their participation in their country. The Thirteenth Amendment states that

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.

One of the battles surrounding the Thirteenth Amendment in particular, and all the Civil War amendments in general, concerned the interpretation of the Tenth Amendment Tenth Amendment
Constitution, U.S.;Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Part of the Bill of Rights that was adopted in 1791, the Tenth Amendment states that no federal legislation can detract from the power of state government. Those who opposed the Thirteenth Amendment claimed that the right to allow slavery was not specifically denied in the Constitution and therefore fell within the authority of the state.

With the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the long fight to abolish slavery in the United States was over. The amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, and officially announced on December 18, 1865. For some abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, the battle had been won: Slavery was ended. Others, however, saw the Thirteenth Amendment as only a beginning in the struggle for African American rights.

Frederick Douglass Douglass, Frederick
[p]Douglass, Frederick;and Thirteenth Amendment did not share Garrison Garrison, William Lloyd
[p]Garrison, William Lloyd;and Thirteenth Amendment ’s high hopes. He believed that slavery would not be fully abolished until the former slaves acquired the right to vote. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 Civil Rights Act of 1866 did not provide this right. It was not until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, Citizenship, U.S.;and African Americans[African Americans] in 1868, that citizenship and the rights thereof were guaranteed to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Finally, in February, 1870, ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment expressly awarded former slaves the right to vote. Within weeks, the first African American in the U.S. Senate, Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi, took his seat.


On April 15, 1865, President Lincoln died from wounds inflicted by an assassin. Vice President Andrew Johnson Johnson, Andrew
[p]Johnson, Andrew;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction]
Johnson, Andrew
[p]Johnson, Andrew;becomes president then became president and prepared to oversee Reconstruction Reconstruction;and Andrew Johnson[Johnson] of the nation. Johnson, however, was not highly supportive or sympathetic to the needs of the former slaves. He blocked every attempt to extend rights to former slaves. In fact, Johnson vetoed most of the civil rights legislation passed by Congress, only to have his vetoes overridden by Congress. Impeachment charges eventually ensued, and Johnson Johnson, Andrew
[p]Johnson, Andrew;impeachment of was spared by only a one-vote margin. At that point, Johnson withdrew from Reconstruction activities and allowed Congress to control the process.

One interesting note is the relationship between the woman suffrage Woman suffrage;and abolition[Abolition]
Abolitionism;and woman suffrage[Woman suffrage] movement and the abolition and black suffrage process. The decision over whether to support the call for the black vote divided the woman suffrage movement. Some believed that a gradual transition, in which first black men received the vote and then all women received the vote, would meet with greater success. Two such women were Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe. Others believed that suffrage was “all or nothing,” and that women should not forsake their own cause in order to gain the vote for others. Susan B. Anthony Anthony, Susan B.
[p]Anthony, Susan B.;and black suffrage[Black suffrage] and Elizabeth Cady Stanton Stanton, Elizabeth Cady
[p]Stanton, Elizabeth Cady;and black suffrage[Black suffrage] were opposed to legislation that specifically referred to men and neglected suffrage for women. It was not until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 that women gained the long-sought suffrage.

Meanwhile, the major impact of the Thirteenth Amendment was to end American slavery forever. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the amendment might also provide grounds for congressional action against the “badges and incidents” of slavery. However, use of the amendment for that purpose has been relatively uncommon.

Further Reading

  • Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. This standard history of the black experience in America details the changes undergone by African Americans during the movement toward abolition and after they achieved citizenship.
  • Lawson, Bill E., and Frank M. Kirkland. Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Collection of essays on the leading black abolitionist spokesperson of the nineteenth century.
  • Lewis, Thomas T., and Richard L. Wilson, eds. Encyclopedia of the U.S. Supreme Court. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2001. Comprehensive reference work on the Supreme Court that contains substantial discussions of issues surrounding the U.S. Constitution and its amendments.
  • Owen, Robert Dale. The Wrong of Slavery, the Right of Emancipation, and the Future of the African Race in the United States. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1864. Writings on the issue of slavery in the United States from an abolitionist of the slave era who is believed to have helped move Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Describes the interracial alliance of abolitionists Frederick Douglass, James McCune Smith, Gerrit Smith, and John Brown.

Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves

Southerners Advance Proslavery Arguments

Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire

American Anti-Slavery Society Is Founded

Douglass Launches The North Star

U.S. Civil War

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

Reconstruction of the South

Civil Rights Act of 1866

Fourteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Civil Rights Cases

Plessy v. Ferguson

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