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Thirteenth Amendment: About

Why is the Thirteenth Amendment Important?

Thirteenth Amendment, amendment (1865) to the Constitution of the United States that formally abolished slavery. Although the words slavery and slave are never mentioned in the Constitution, the Thirteenth Amendment abrogated those sections of the Constitution which had tacitly codified the “peculiar institution”: Article I, Section 2, regarding apportionment of representation in the House of Representatives, which had been “determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons provided for the appointment,” with “all other persons” meaning slaves; Article I, Section 9, which had established 1807 as the end date for the importation of slaves, referred to in this case as “such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit”; and Article IV, Section 2, which mandated the return to their owners of fugitive slaves, here defined as persons “held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another.”

The Emancipation Proclamation, declared and promulgated by Pres. Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the American Civil War, freed only those slaves held in the Confederate States of America. In depriving the South of its greatest economic resource—abundant free human labour—Lincoln’s proclamation was intended primarily as an instrument of military strategy. Only when emancipation was universally proposed through the Thirteenth Amendment did it become national policy. Moreover, the legality of abolition by presidential edict was questionable.  (Continue reading from Britannica)

 

Ending The United States' "Original Sin"

Many think that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. However, the Emancipation Proclamation freed only slaves held in the eleven Confederate states that had seceded, and only in the portion of those states not already under Union control.  

The true abolition of slavery was achieved when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. The first section of the Amendment declares: “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.” The Amendment is unique in the Constitution because it bars every person from holding slaves or engaging in other forms of involuntary servitude, whereas most constitutional provisions only constrain or regulate the government. It is unique in another way as well: although the Constitution obliquely acknowledged and accommodated slavery in its original text, the Thirteenth Amendment was the first explicit mention of slavery in the Constitution.

The most immediate impact of the Thirteenth Amendment was to end chattel slavery as it was practiced in the southern United States. However, the Amendment also bars “involuntary servitude,” which covers a broader range of labor arrangements where a person is forced to work by the use or threatened use of physical or legal coercion. For example, the Thirteenth Amendment bans peonage, which occurs when a person is compelled to work to pay off a debt. Originally a Spanish practice, peonage was practiced in the New Mexico Territory and spread across the Southern United States after the Civil War. Former slaves and other poor citizens became indebted to merchants and plantation owners for living and working expenses. Unable to repay their debts, they became trapped in a cycle of work-without-pay. The Supreme Court held this practice unconstitutional in 1911. Bailey v. Alabama (1911).  (Continue reading from National Constitution Center)