The Official End of Slavery

The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified at the end of 1865, officially abolished slavery. It reads as follows:

Section 1Neither 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.

Section 2 — Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Its ratification freed approximately 4 million blacks who had not otherwise been freed over the course of the Civil War and ended the institution of forced servitude forever.

However, had things gone differently, the Thirteenth Amendment would have continued slavery rather than abolished it. In 1861, an amendment to that effect was proposed in a desperate attempt to avoid a civil war and keep the Union whole. It was supported by nearly half of the congressional Republicans and the vast majority of Democrats and had passed both the House and the Senate by the required two-thirds majority; however, the war erupted before the amendment could be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation officially made the abolition of slavery a goal of the war, but because it was a wartime edict, it freed only slaves from states in armed rebellion against the Union. There was a very good chance it wouldn't apply once the war was over, and many believed the Supreme Court would rule the proclamation unconstitutional.

In an attempt to end slavery in the United States once and for all, Lincoln laid the groundwork for a constitutional amendment abolishing the institution in 1864. The Democratic Party opposed ratification, even though Lincoln tried to sweeten the pot by promoting financial compensation from the federal government to all slaveholders. Despite objections from the Democrats, the Republican-dominated Senate quickly passed the proposed amendment in April by a vote of thirty-eight to six. The House voted on it twice before it finally passed in January 1865 by a vote of 119 to fifty-six.

Lincoln signed the amendment in a symbolic gesture the very next day, and eight states ratified it within a week. The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was celebrated with a 100-gun salute from artillery batteries on Capitol Hill. It took eight months for the rest of the states to follow suit, and Lincoln did not live to see it ratified. The Thirteenth Amendment was officially ratified on December 18, 1865.

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