The United States Constitution – Part 12
The Thirteenth Amendment
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.
WOW! This was a big one for us! Interestingly, Congress had already passed a Thirteenth Amendment in 1861 to guarantee the legality and perpetuity of slavery in the slave states, rather than to end it and it was a futile effort to avoid the Civil War. Although it was narrowly passed by both Houses, the Civil War started before it could be sent to the states for ratification. Another interesting sidebar: not just black slaves were impacted by this amendment. Many white people had been sold into slavery and England sold its felons into bondage to the colonists until their terms of imprisonment had been met.
(We’ve all heard of the famous Dred Scott V. Sandford case (1857) wherein the Supreme Court ruled that Congress lacked the power to prohibit slavery in any new territories attained. This decision basically gave the slave owners the right to pour into the new territories and pass pro-slavery constitutions – which made the Civil War an inevitable “unintended consequence.” http://law2.umkc.edu)
Once the Civil War started, the current version was passed – when none of the southern members were present for debate! Even then, it passed by a very narrow margin, mostly through Republican efforts (in fact, only 4 Democrats voted for it), so we can tell it was a very touchy subject leading up to and including the Civil War years.
President Abraham Lincoln then took the ball to run with it, actively working to push it through Congress, using all of his political skill and influence to get the job done. Even after his Emancipation Proclamation had been in effect for a year, there was still a large contingent of people/representatives who were opposed to freeing the slaves because the plantation economy of the day required that labor to produce their crops. (www.greatamericanhistory.net)
It was such a divisive issue for so long, that when the final vote was announced passing the Thirteenth Amendment by such a slim margin, the galleries erupted in cheering, congressmen embraced and wept, and Capitol cannons boomed a 100-gun salute. Congressman George Julian of Indiana wrote, “I have felt, ever since the vote, as if I were in a new country.” (www.law2.umkc.edu)
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
This section just gave Congress the teeth to enforce the amendment and it was this section of the amendment that enabled Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The current Thirteenth Amendment was proposed on January 31, 1865 and ratified on December 6, 1865, so you can see it took a while to get enough of the states on board to make it official. Mississippi did not ratify the amendment until 1995! (www.usconstitution.net)
The Thirteenth Amendment is also unique in that, unlike most Constitutional provisions, it is self-executing: it directly reaches, without action by Congress, conduct by private individuals.