Emancipation: 13th Amendment

Figure 1.--This is Harriet Martha and family, slaves Living in Nashville, Tennesee. The CDV portrait is undated, but we believe that it was taken or more likely copied just before the Civil War. These appear to be slave family without the father. Separation of families were one of the horrors of slavery. Mothers were usaally allowed to keep younger childre, but after the boys got a little older, they were likely to be sold. Some slaves were owned by families in the upper south and kept in good conditions. These are some of the best-dressed slave boys that we have ever seen. Some one has written on the back at the time, "Lights and Shades of southern life." Originaly photographed by J.M Seheleier Nashville Ten. and coppied for the Northern Santuary [fair?] by Thos. Shaw. Photographist, Chagrin Falls, Ohio." It may have been coppied from a Daguerreotype orginal. A boy as white as the older boy might be sent north if the father took an interest.

President Lincoln knew that emancipation by presidential order was highly tenuous given the composition of the Taney Court. Emancipation by legislative action was constitutionally more sound, but even this was not court proof. The only sure way of achieving permanent emancipation was amending the Constitution. This was a very difficult process. After the Bill of Rights, by the time of the Civil War there had only been two amendments approved to the Constitution. It proved to be a difficult effort. Despite the absence of the slave states, there was considerable opposition. Almost all the Democrats opposed the proposed amendment. It took all of Lincoln's political skills to guide the Amendment through Congress and send it to the state legislatures for ratification. It is one of the shortest and most terse of the amendments. Several hundred thousand men died to get those few words added to the Constitution.


One of the most significant institution in United States history was slavery. Slavery helped build America. It is a major reason why America developed differently than Europe. It is also a major cause of the disparities that now exist among Americas (much greater than in Europe), and the roots of major social problems are rooted in slavery. Two historians write that the legacy of slavery, "... remains in the history and heritage of the South that it shaped, in the culture of the North, where its memory was long denied, in the national economy for which it provided much of the foundation, and in the political and social system it profoundly influenced." [Horton and Horton] Despite the importance of slavery in the American epoch, slavery until recently has been a subjected avoided by American historians. To the extent that slavery was addressed, it tended to be discussed in terms that accepted the southern myth of idyllic plantation life and benign white masters struggling to deal with lazy, workers with a child-like mentality. This has changed in recent years as historians produce more realistic treatment of slavery. One area in which progress has been disappointing is school textbooks. The egregiously racist treatment has been removed from textbooks, but for the most part school textbooks still give little attention to slavery and the discussion presented is usually not illuminating. One problem here is the economics of school textbooks and the need to meet the editorial demands of large states. Here Texas is a particular problem. American schools have attempted to deal with the racial issue bu designating February as Black History Month. Unfortunately rarely does Black History Month address slavery. Rather it generally amounts to an innocuous effort to point out Blacks who have contributed to America which do little to explain social inequities in America. The avoidance of slavery is not just a matter of white unwillingness to address slavery, but many Black educators also seem reluctant.

Original 13th Amendment (February 1861)

Lincoln's election was greeted with rage throughout the South (November 1860). South Carolina almost immediately seceded from the Union (December 1860). Desperate Congressional leaders seeking to avoid national disaster conceived the idea of placating the South. the result was the original 13th Amendment. This measure was very different than the 13th Amendment that we now know. Congress with most of the Southern delegations still in Washington passed the measure (February 1861). This Amendment guaranteed the legality and perpetuity of the institution of slavery in any state that allowed it. The votes were close in both houses, but it passed. The outbreak of Civil War (April 1861) occurred before any state acted on it. With the Southern states seceding the measure became a moot point.

Civil War (April 1861)

The effort to pass the original 13th Amendment was rendered moot by the outbreak of the Civil War. With most of the slave states withdrawing from the Union, there was no longer any substantial support for reviving the slave trade. There were a variety of issues that had varying sectional appeal. All of these, however, were amenable to political compromise. It was slavery that inflamed passions making political compromise impossible. Thus the South led by South Carolina decided on secession to create an independent Confederacy. With the approval of Confederate officials, militia forces in South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter, launching the Civil War (April 1861) and a military campaign to ensure Southern independence. Ironically the Federal Constitution backed with the considerable Congressional strength of the slaves states (in effect increased by partially counting the slaves) would have made it virtually impossible to abolish slavery,

Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863)

President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all "... slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, ... then ... in rebellion ... forever free." Totally lacking in the Emancipation Proclamation was any attempt at rhetoric or moral justification. Rather the justification was military necessity. Buried in the text was authorization for blacks to enlist in the military. As one observer notes, the Emancipation Proclamation was as notable for what it did not say as for what it did say. There was no mention of citizenship and the right to vote. No mention of civil rights. [Guelzo, "Seven-Score"] One of the interesting aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is its very legalistic tone, in sharp contrast to the soaring rhetoric of his Gettysburg Address or the eloquent plea for national reconciliation of the Second Inaugural. The Emancipation Proclamation was very plainly written. In fact all the whereases, therefores, and aforesaids made it sound more like a contract for a used car. Historian Richard Hofstadter commented that the Emancipation Proclamation "has all the moral grandeur of a bill of landing". Why did Lincoln draft a document that was so legalistic. Seemingly if ever a proclamation cried out for soaring rhetoric it was the Emancipation Proclamation and few presidents were capable of the rhetoric that the occasions demanded. It was Lincoln's decision to draft such a plain if not flat, legalistic document. And the reason was the Supreme Court

Taney Court

President Lincoln had considerable reason to be concern with what the Supreme Court might do after the War. The Supreme Court was led by Chief Justice Roper P. Taney, appointed by Andrew Jackson. The Taney Court had delivered arguably the worst Supreme Court decision in American history--the Dread Scott decision (1857). The decision settled the the question the civil status of blacks. The Court held that blacks were not and could not be citizens. Taney was convinced that the decision would defuse the sectional tensions building at the time. He advised newly elected President Buchanan of this even before the decision was issued. It is critical to understand the Taney Court when studying the modern historical debate over the Emancipation Proclamation. The Court was composed of Democrats and could easily have struck down a more expansive Emancipation Proclamation. This is why Lincoln wrote such a legalistic document and why he also pursued the 13th Amendment. There is no doubt that without the 13th Amendment that the Emancipation Proclamation would have been brought before the Court and almost certainly questioned. Slave owners would have used the courts to recover their "lost property". The Court had begun to strike down various actions taken by the Lincoln Administration. Court rulings on military tribunals (in Ex-parte Mulligan) and prize cases give an indication of court hostility to the Lincoln Administration. Chief Justice Taney died in December 1864, but the make-up of the court was still little changed.

Constitutional Amendment

After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was keenly aware that emancipation could only be made fool proof by a constitutional amendment. The only sure way of achieving permanent emancipation was amending the Constitution. This was a very difficult process. A prospective amendment had to be passed by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. Than ratification required approval of three-fourths of the states. After the Bill of Rights, by the time of the Civil War there had only been two amendments approved to the Constitution.

Political Opposition

Amending the Constitution proved to be a difficult effort. Despite the absence of the slave states, there was considerable opposition in Congress. The War from the beginning had been a war to save the Union. There was strong support throughout the North on this issue. Lincoln had turned the War into a war against slavery, but here support was not nearly as strong. Almost all the Democrats in Congress opposed the proposed amendment. It took all of Lincoln's political skills to guide the Amendment through Congress and send it to the state legislatures for ratification. It was one of the simplest amendments

Congressional Action (1864)

The Senate passed the 13 Amendment with little difficulty (April 8, 1864). Senate passage had been virtually unanimous . The vote was 38 to 6. This of course was only possible because the southern states had seceeded and their representives were no longer in the Senate. Had the South not suceeded, abolishing slavery would have been imposible. Irinically on southern ly secession made emancipation possible. Posible but not a fete accompli. Passage in the House of Representatives was, however, much more difficult. The effort to pass the measure in the House was a major hurdle to abolidhing slavery. The vote in the House was 93 to 65, far short of a two-thirds majority. The vote was largely over party lines. The Republicans voted for it, but only four Democrats joined them. This clearly shows that while preservation of the Union was strongly held by northern voters, emancipation was a much less firmly held view. Of course without public opinion polls, actual public opinion is difficult to assess with any accuracy. These votes of course were taken without the Southern delegations present. If they had been present, the Republicans could not even had mustered a simple majority.

Lincoln's Efforts

President Lincoln is strongly associated with the Emancipation Proclamation. Less well know is the role he played in the passage of the 13th Amendment. He began promoting the Amendment. It was at Lincoln's initiative that the 13th Amendment was made a part of the Republican party platform for the 1864 presidential elections. He did this knowing that abolition was not popular among many northern voters. We are not sure how this affected either the presidential or Congressional results. We aspected the voters were more focused on the War than emancipation. We have never noted an assessment of the emancipation issue on vote tallies.

Presidential Election (November 1864)

The Democrats nominated former General George B. McClellan for president. McClellan would have ended the War and would have rescinded the Emancipation Proclamation. The terrible war losses were telling. Anti-war feeling grew in the north. There were draft riots in New York in which the rioters attacked Blacks, including orphans. Lincoln was sure that he would loose the election. The costly Wilderness campaign (1864) did not help the situation. One telling incident into Lincoln's soul was in the dark days of mid 1864 when it looked like his re-election was lost, he called in Stephen Douglas to organize a secret mission behind Southern lines to encourage slaves to escape to the North while it was still possible. Finally Federal victories moved public opinion in the North. Sherman at long last took Atlanta (September 3). Lincoln's reelection mant that the emancipation proclamation would not be rescined, but the fact that he saw that he could have been defeated and there could ve future Democratic victiries, surely must have motivated him to actively work for a constutuo=ionl amnendment that would make emancipation unasailable politically. This meant the measure had to be pushed through the House of Representatives. and this would not be asy because of the number of Democratic Congressmen..

Congressional Approval (January 1865)

The President after his reelection (November 1864) set about trying to gain the support of more Democratic representatives to secure pasage of the bill authorizing a Constitutional amendment. The Senate had already passed the bill. The Senate approved the 13th amendment formally abolishing before the election by alop-side margin (April 8, 1864). The Democrats had, however, blocked it. Altthough they were a minority, a two-thirds vote was required for passage and the Republicns needed Democratic votes to pass it. Lincoln did not press the issue. He made the abolishing slavery an plnk in the Reoublican 1864 election platform. He knew, however, that aame-duck president could not convince waveing Democratic Congressmen to vote for the Amendment. This changed with his reelection. He now had to make a choice. He could attempt to ram the Amendment through the House or wait for the new Congress. The Republicns had gaind 50 House sets in the reelection. And even with the Unionists losing a few seats, the Republicand had the votes to approve the Amendment. Lincoln, however was adament that the Amendment be passed by the 38th Congress. The President did not leave menoirs. So we are not sure just what his thinking was. We do know he wanted to end slavery, but that he was also a realist and master politican. We the general historicalassessment is that he wanted pasage to a bipartisan achievment. We think this surely must have been part of his thinking, but there was another complication. The Reoublicans had the votes in the 29th Congress, but there was a big unknwn--readmission of the Confederate states. If they were readmitted, nit only woyld the Reoublican not have a two-thirds majority, byt they might nitveven have a majority. This my hve also affected the President's thinking. (This possivility was not considered in the otherwuse brilliant Spielberg film 'Lincoln' (2012). Lincoln did not share his thinking sith his cloest advisers who did not understand why he just did not wait until the new Congress sat. What followed was the perhaps the greatest exercise in flim-fam politics, hard-ball politucs un Americam history. It makes the Obamacare Corn-Huskerker Discount and other arrangements looklike the work of choir boys. The President's people offered Federal pztroinafe, jobs to defeated Congressmen. Post master appointments and other officers were on offers. There was dickeing overa railriafd bill. Money was exchanhed jands. It is an huge irony that perhaos the most purely moral vote in American history was only achievedcwith such skull-duggery. Radical Reoublican Thaddeus Stevenus wjo was holding out for citzenship described Lincoln's achievenent sucintly, "The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America." [Guelzo, p. 401.] The President after his impressive 1864 election victory finally suceeded. The House passed the Amendment with a vote of 119-56 (January 31, 1865). The vote was closer thn this suggests. Awo-thirds ote was needed and some Democratic abstentions were vital. Absentions provided political cover, they could not be accused of vofing for the sndmnt, but helped to gain the two-thirds vicrory. One wonders why so many Democrats changed their mind about the Amendment. It is unlikely that they changed their opinion on the issue. And the kob offrs and bribes cerainly were essential, but Lincoln's historic election victory changed some minds. They were now dealing with a reelected president rather than an unpopular lame-duck president. Certainly the course of the war had changed after the fall of Atlanta (September 1864). Another factor is that the Republican victory may have changed some minds concerning the acceptance of northern voters toward emancipation.

Ratification (December 1865)

Lincoln after working exhaustively to obtain Congressional passage of the 13th Amendment, next began working on state ratifications. This was a very difficult process. Ratification required the approval of three-fourths of the states. He lent his support to the Republicans in Congress who insisted that southern state legislatures adopt the 13th Amendment before their states would be readmitted to the Union and allowed to return to Congress. Another factor was a brand new state with a miniml pppulation--Nevada. West Birginia helped, by=ut Virginia made the difference. President Lincoln explained, "It is easier to admit Nevada than to raise another million of soldiers." [Dana, pp. 174-77.] The dates of ratification were: Illinois, February 1, 1865; Rhode Island, February 2, 1865; Michigan, February 2, 1865; Maryland, February 3, 1865; New York, February 3, 1865; Pennsylvania, February 3, 1865; West Virginia, February 3, 1865; Missouri, February 6, 1865; Maine, February 7, 1865; Kansas, February 7, 1865; Massachusetts, February 7, 1865; Virginia, February 9, 1865; Ohio, February 10, 1865; Indiana, February 13, 1865; Nevada, February 16, 1865; Louisiana, February 17, 1865; Minnesota, February 23, 1865; Wisconsin, February 24, 1865; Vermont, March 9, 1865; Tennessee, April 7, 1865; Arkansas, April 14, 1865; Connecticut, May 4, 1865; New Hampshire, July 1, 1865; South Carolina, November 13, 1865; Alabama, December 2, 1865; North Carolina, December 4, 1865; Georgia, December 6, 1865. The approval in Georgia meant that the required 27 of the 36 states had been achieved. The Secretary of State certified the ratification of the Amendment (December 18, 1865). The amendment was subsequently ratified by Oregon, December 8, 1865; California, December 19, 1865; Florida, December 28, 1865 (Florida again ratified on June 9, 1868, upon its adoption of a new constitution); Iowa, January 15, 1866; New Jersey, January 23, 1866 (after having rejected the amendment on March 16, 1865); Texas, February 18, 1870; Delaware, February 12, 1901 (after having rejected the amendment on February 8, 1865); Kentucky, March 18, 1976 (after having rejected it on February 24, 1865). The amendment was rejected by Mississippi).


The 13th Amendment finally abolished slavery as a legal institution in the United States, ending the debate which had dominated American political life during the 19th century. The Constitution itself never mentioned slavery because of opposition to the institution in the Constitutional Convention. Rather allusions to it appear n the document. There is a reference to "such persons"(Article I, Section 9 ) and “a person held to service or labor” (Article IV, Section 2). The 13th Amendment was one of the simplest of all the amendments and does refer to slavery by name. The text read: "Section 1: 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. Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." It is one of the shortest and most terse of the amendments. Several hundred thousand men died to get those few words added to the Constitution.


After President Lincoln's assassination (April 1865) conflict developed between Democratic President Andrew Johnson and the Republican majority in Congress. Johnson believed in a soft peace and that by simply ratifying the 13th Amendment and affirming loyalty that the Southern states could resume sending their delegations to Congress. This was quickly accomplished, a factor in the speedy ratification process. The Republicans in Congress, however, wanted a more demanding Reconstruction process. While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, it did not address the issue of citizenship and voting rights. The Republicans in Congress wanted to ensure the civil rights of the liberated slaves. President Johnson believed that such actions under the Constitution were state prerogatives.

Jim Crow

After Reconstruction, whites gained controll of state legislatures and passed Jim Crow laws. These were essentially the same as the Black Codes that they had tried to enact in the aftermath of the Civil War. These laws as well as extra-legal violence effectively denied blacks their civil rights and reasonable access to public services and the judicial system. The success of the Lost Cause mentality helped make this acceptable. The Freedmen were essentially made second-class citizens. The Jim Crow system was endorsed by the Supreme Court Plessy vs. Fergusson decession (1896) establishing the legal principle of "separate but equal".


Dana, Charles. Recollections of the Civil War.

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.


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