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The Thirteenth Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment

by William H. Benson

December 18, 2019

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and by it, he declared that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are and henceforward shall be free.” Lincoln’s Proclamation freed some 3.1 million slaves within the Confederacy.

Eric Foner, historian and author of a recent book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, said that Lincoln’s Proclamation was “the largest act of slave emancipation in world history. Never before had so many slaves been declared free.

Yet, Lincoln’s Proclamation did not include the 800,000 slaves within the five border states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Missouri—those states that favored slavery but had refused to join the Southern states’ Confederacy.

Also, Lincoln feared that a future president might issue a proclamation that would undo his, or the courts may declare his unconstitutional.

As a result, some legislators in the Republican-held Congress insisted that now was the time to introduce an amendment to the Constitution that would eradicate and abolish slavery once and for all.

Lincoln came late to the campaign for a thirteenth amendment that would abolish slavery.

Instead, he argued for gradual emancipation, one state at a time, coupled with federal funds granted to slaveowners for the loss of their property, plus colonization, encouraging former slaves to migrate to Africa or Haiti or Central America, an idea that few slaves embraced.

Lincoln understood that to add an amendment to the Constitution was “a complex and cumbersome process.” The last amendment, the twelfth, was added in 1804, sixty years before. Also, the process is spearheaded by Congress and the state governments, with no presidential signature required.

On April 8, 1864, the Senate passed a resolution for a Thirteenth Amendment by a vote of 38 to 6.

Section 1 read, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Thirty-two words to abolish 250 years of “unrequited labor.”

Section 2 read, “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The amendment fails to mention anything about compensation to former slaveowners and nothing about colonization. Instead, this was a legal measure meant to strike at the very heart of slavery.

In June of 1864, the amendment came to a vote in the House, but only 93 Representatives voted for it, not nearly the required two-thirds. It was then that Lincoln began to lobby hard for the amendment.

At one point just days prior to the decisive and close vote on January 31, 1865, Lincoln called two members of the House to the White House, and told them that they must procure two additional votes.

“How?” they asked.

He replied, “I am President of the U.S., clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done, but remember that I am President of the U.S., clothed with immense power.”

The final tally in the House was 119 to 56, two more than the required two-thirds. Wild applause broke out in the House when the votes were counted. Men wept, hugged each other, tossed their hats.

James S. Rollins, of Missouri, decided to vote for it, because Lincoln asked him to, and, as he said, “we can never have an entire peace in this country as long as the institution of slavery remains.”

Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, dramatized this close vote for the Thirteenth Amendment in the House.

On February 1, Lincoln signed his name and wrote the word “Approved,” to the text of the joint resolution that Congress sent him, although his signature was unnecessary. The Thirteenth Amendment is the only ratified amendment that a president ever signed.

As a result, February 1 is celebrated in some communities as Freedom Day.

Then, beginning on February 1, each state took up the issue of ratification. Illinois ratified the amendment first, and in early December of 1865, Georgia voted to ratify it, the last of the necessary 27 states to do so.

On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward certified that the Thirteenth Amendment is now a part of the Constitution. Eric Foner though commented that, although the day is important in U.S. history, “December 18 has long been forgotten.” But slavery in the United States was gone.

Next time in these pages: the Fourteenth Amendment.