13th Amendment Frees Slaves
Almost two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment was passed, ending legal slavery in the United States.
When the Civil War began in 1861, the North fought to maintain the Union, rather than to end slavery. Lincoln didn’t enter office planning to outlaw slavery, even though he personally opposed it. But as the war passed into its second year and the fighting grew more violent, Lincoln realized that he would need to put an end to slavery. In September 1862, he warned the South of his Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all enslaved people in the Confederacy to be free on January 1, 1863. However, the Confederacy didn’t recognize the proclamation – as they considered themselves their own nation – and it went largely ignored in the South.
Lincoln’s proclamation had little effect in the South and didn’t apply to the border states that remained loyal to the Union. And so the war continued. In December 1863, Lincoln used his war powers to issue a “Proclamation for Amnesty and Reconstruction,” giving Southern states the chance to rejoin the Union if they abolished slavery. The Confederate States refused. Also in December, James Mitchell Ashley introduced the first bill calling for an amendment to outlaw slavery. Other representatives issued similar bills, and they were eventually combined into one joint resolution. The resolution passed the Senate on April 8, 1864 by a vote of 38 to 6.
The amendment became a hot topic, in part because 1864 was an election year. Lincoln endorsed the amendment when he accepted his party’s nomination, though he didn’t often speak in support of it. It was so controversial that some even believed it was unconstitutional.
Once Lincoln won the 1864 election, he made passage of the amendment one of his major priorities. In his State of the Union speech on December 6, he told Congress, “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?”
Lincoln then tasked his Secretary of State, William Seward, with acquiring votes in any way necessary. Seward had extensive funds at his disposal to convince potential opponents to change their votes. According to Thaddeus Stevens, “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
The House called for a vote on January 31, 1865, and it passed by a vote of 119 to 56. The room erupted in celebration, with some members crying with joy and African American onlookers cheering wildly. The 13th Amendment was then submitted to the states the next day. Illinois was the first to ratify it, and was followed by 17 other states by the end of the month. These included two former Confederate states, Virginia and Louisiana.
Following Lincoln’s shocking assassination that April, his successor, Andrew Johnson, pursued the cause. He joined in negotiations with Southern states to convince them to pass the amendment. Finally, on December 6, Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the amendment, earning the three-fourths majority required for it to become law. On December 18, Seward certified that the 13th Amendment was officially passed and part of the United States Constitution. Though the law legally freed all slaves, many Southern states imposed their own interpretations that essentially kept Black people enslaved. In response, Johnson issued America’s first Civil Rights Act in 1866, giving African Americans citizenship and equal protection, though it would still be another century before true equal rights were established.
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