Civil War 150: The Thirteenth Amendment

April 8, 2014, marked the 150th anniversary of the Senate’s passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This represented the first time that the federal government had attempted to ban slavery everywhere within the United States, including in both loyal states and those in rebellion. The Senate passed the Amendment by a vote of 38 to 6, and the House of Representatives later passed the Amendment on January 31, 1865, with a vote of 119 to 56. The Amendment states, “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.” Its language was taken from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery in areas north of the Ohio River.

The Amendment was the next step toward the total abolition of slavery following President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863. In his Proclamation, Lincoln declared that all slaves within the areas currently in rebellion against the United States were free. Exemption was given to the border states that had not seceded and certain areas of states that had seceded but were under Union control. Moreover, slaves were now permitted to fight in the Union Army and Navy. Lincoln knew that the Emancipation Proclamation would not be enough. Ultimate abolition would depend on a Union victory.

    Emancipation by Thomas Nast. Print on paper, c1865. Library of Congress. LC-DIG-pga-03898.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Lincoln understood that General Ambrose Burnside (then-Commander of the Army of the Potomac) was losing his passion after a defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The President wrote a letter to Joseph Hooker and appointed him to fill the role. Lincoln needed the Commander’s commitment in order to ensure that the Emancipation Proclamation received support from all of the Union troops. Hooker’s support and the inclusion of African Americans in the Union military signified a new shift in the Civil War.

Lincoln knew that his Republican victory in the 1864 presidential election would make it possible to ratify a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. The Democratic Party’s platform, however, called for a restoration of peace and union at all costs. If necessary, this would include the continuation of slavery where it existed. President Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 helped to solidify the Emancipation Proclamation’s intent and promote the 13th Amendment.

Abraham Lincoln image courtesy of Ford's Theatre Historic Site.

Nearly 15 months after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Senate passed the Amendment. President Lincoln was quick to approve the joint congressional proposal on February 1, 1865, the day after the House of Representatives passed it. The states finished ratifying the Amendment on December 6, 1865. Subsequently, institutionalized slavery ceased to exist within the United States.

The 13th Amendment’s passage, however, would not have been possible before the Civil War. Confederate states that had seceded claimed to do so because they feared Lincoln would abolish slavery. But, at least initially, slavery was not as significant of a cause to Lincoln and the Union as it was to the Confederates.

The Civil War’s moral significance changed for the Union as battles became more intense and fatal, and as free and enslaved African Americans advocated for making abolition and equal rights specific war aims. The 13th Amendment signified that the North was driven by morality more than ever before.

Danny Dubin is a former Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communication Intern and student at American University with a major in Public Communication. Originally from the Chicago area, Dubin is also a professional magician, performing for private events and functions around Washington, D.C.