Key Facts & Summary
- By 1861, at the time of the beginning of the Civil War, there were around 4 million slaves in the US, roughly 13% of the population, with most living in the southern states.
- Lincoln advocated for the Thirteenth Amendment until 1865 January when it was passed by a vote of 119-56, achieving the two-thirds majority requirement.
Background to the Amendment
As of 1776 at the time of the US Declaration of Independence, slavery was still legal in all the 13 colonies. Yet, the US constitution adopted in 1789, with liberty and equality as its foundations, servitude or the status of the black people was never explicitly mentioned.
Many of the founding fathers themselves, including James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Edward Rutledge owned slaves while at the same time maintaining that it was wrong. In 1807, Thomas Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Slave Importation. He is thought to have had a complicated relationship with the issue of slavery, with his policies on the subject and practice reflecting the complexity.
By 1861, at the time of the beginning of the Civil War, there were around 4 million slaves in the US, roughly 13% of the population, with most living in the southern states.
President Lincoln was conflicted when it came to dealing with the issue of slavery in the south. At some point in 1861, in bids to avert the civil war, he secretly supported the Corwin Amendment, that sought to bar the federal government from passing constitutional amendments that abolished slavery.
After the Civil War erupted, the Emancipation Proclamation was pronounced as a strategy to subdue the rebellious states and not so much because of the moral question of slavery. Lincoln hoped that the emancipation would mean crippling the southern states due to the unavailability of free labour and further, result in additional able-bodied men to join the Union army. The Proclamation also only applied to the states that had not changed sides leaving the Confederacy and sworn allegiance to the Union.
The Thirteenth Amendment
In April 1864, the US Senate passed the 13 Amendment with the required two-thirds majority vote. In the House of Representative, the Democrats thought that the amendment would undermine the sovereignty of the states and therefore did not pass it. Congress was adjourned in July 1864, leaving the matter pending.
Lincoln won the elections owing to his popularity over winning critical battles during the war, and further since the states that had ceded from the Union did not participate in the polls. After the elections, Lincoln advocated for the Amendment until 1865 January when it was passed by a vote of 119-56, achieving the two-thirds majority requirement. By the end of 1865, all Northern states had ratified the amendment as well as most of the “reconstructed” southern states.
Impact of the Thirteenth Amendment
The thirteenth amendment significantly advanced the cause of abolitionist and was significant in alleviating the human rights violations the blacks were facing. However, racial discrimination was still rampant in the US even after its ratification. Still, while the 14th and 15th amendment were instrumental in curtailing the actions of the government, the 13th amendment applied to private citizens and enabled Congress to enact measures against contemporary forms of slavery.
The Black Codes and the Jim Crows laws maintained the slavery status quo by compelling blacks to work for plantation farmers and as domestic help and introduced other human rights dynamics such as convict leasing.
However, the achievements of the century notwithstanding, the full realisation of rights by Americans regardless of race were only fully realised in the 20th Century with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act 1964, the Voting Rights Act 1965 and the Fair Housing Act 1968.