On This Day

13th Amendment, 13th Amendment passage
Harper's Weekly/Library of Congress
A Harper’s Weekly cover depicting the
passage of the 13th Amendment.

On This Day: House Passes 13th Amendment Abolishing Slavery

January 31, 2012 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 31, 1865, the House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.

The 13th Amendment

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On the first day of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in territories in rebellion. It did not apply to the roughly 800,000 slaves in border states and other exempted areas and could not be enforced to the more than 3 million slaves in rebel territory. More importantly for Lincoln, the proclamation was merely a war powers act that was unlikely to withstand a constitutional challenge.

Lincoln needed a constitutional amendment if abolition was going to survive well beyond the end of the Civil War, so he asked the antislavery Radical Republicans in Congress to push through an amendment. The Radical Republicans were joined by a group of War Democrats, those who broke with party ranks to support the war and support abolition. Three bills were drafted between December 1863 and February 1864 by Republican Congressmen James Ashley and James Wilson and Democratic Sen. John Henderson. The three drafts were merged to form the final bill.

The House’s first early attempts to pass an abolition amendment failed, but the Senate passed an amendment in April 1864. The House voted on this amendment on June 15, a week after Republican Party had added the passage of an abolitionist amendment to its platform for the 1864 election. Congressmen voted largely along party lines and the amendment fell 11 votes shy of the necessary two-thirds majority.

Lincoln won re-election in a landslide and Republicans gained in Congress. Following the election, Lincoln asked Congress to pass the amendment before the next session of Congress was seated. In a December 1864 letter to Congress, Lincoln wrote, “Of course the abstract question is not changed; but an intervening election shows, almost certainly, that the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not. Hence there is only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States for their action. And as it is to so go, at all events, may we not agree that the sooner the better?”

On Jan. 31, 1865, the House voted 119–56 in favor of the amendment, which read, “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.”

The Feb. 1, 1865, New York Times described that, upon the amendment’s passage, “the enthusiasm of all present, save a few disappointed politicians, knew no bounds, and for several moments the scene was grand and impressive beyond description. No attempt was made to suppress the applause which came from all sides, every one feeling that the occasion justified the fullest expression of approbation and joy.”

Following its passage, the amendment was sent to the states for ratification, a process included the 11 states of the Confederacy. Four Confederate states ratified the amendment before the end of the Civil War: Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee ratified it through governments put in place by Lincoln’s Reconstruction policy, while Virginia ratified it through a minority legislature that had been created after Virginia’s secession. Ratification was completed on Dec. 6, 1865, when Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the amendment.

Historical Context: Slavery and the Civil War

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to Slavery in America and Web Guide to the Civil War links to the best primary and secondary sources for learning about the topics.

Reference: 13th Amendment Resources

HarpWeek provides insight on creation of the 13th Amendment, as well as a look at the Reconstruction era and biographies of important figures. It includes articles and cartoons from Harper’s Weekly editions of the period. There are similar Web sites for the creation of the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment.

The Library of Congress links to a number of its resources and exhibitions on the 13th Amendment.
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