A Series on the Constitutional Amendments: The Thirteenth

The scene at the signing of the US Constitution.

‘Struggling to end the war and to eliminate slavery once and for all by way of the 13th Amendment, with the amendment’s prospective passage undermining the effort to make peace with the Confederacy and vice versa, Lincoln embodied the Great Man theory that leftists disdain.’

– Steven Erickson

The Civil War has forever held the title of the war that cost the lives of the most Americans. Many people focus on the two World Wars as deadly but the Civil War was by far the deadliest was the Civil War. It not only split the country in two, but also created a lasting animosity between those on opposing sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

While the Thirteenth Amendment does outlaw slavery, the question of why the founders didn’t include this in the original draft of the Constitution must be answered. For simplicity’s sake the short answer is to maintain peace for a time. They knew that he Constitution would never be ratified in the slave-holding states if they had included it. For them it was more important to unify the states first and deal with abolition later.

The Thirteenth Amendment was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865. The amendment was ratified by the requisite number of states on December 6, 1865. It’s important to note that it took nearly a year to ratify this amendment. Also noteworthy is the absence of several northern states from the early ratification process. More recently in 2013 Mississippi’s ratification of the Amendment was finally certified and it made headlines across the country. While important, it’s important to remember that this did not exclude them from the strictures of the Thirteenth Amendment, nor did it mean they didn’t support it. One the necessary number of States have ratified the Amendment, any other ratification is simply ceremonial.

The Thirteenth Amendment reads, ‘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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.’

Now the text of this explicitly forbids slavery as a practice of economy but not a punishment for crime. This came into play later with things such as the Jim Crowe laws which were actually supported for a time by the Supreme Court. This, however, has more to do with the Fourteenth Amendment which we will discuss at a later date.

The precursor to the Thirteenth Amendment was the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) which is still used as one of the greatest landmark cases in American History. Dred Scott lived in a free-state but was considered a slave in his home state of Missouri. He sued for his freedom multiple times through the state court was rebuffed over and over again. Eventually he made his way up to the Supreme Court to be heard. The Supreme Court ultimately decided against him, arguing that because slaves were not citizens, their deendents were not citizens. This did not afford him his own agency as a citizen and he was denied Constitutional Rights.

The clause about punishment for crime has been hotly contested. One such case was Butler v. Perry (1916) where the Supreme Court held that while the federal government cannot require servitude of any kind, the states have no such restriction. The one part of the Amendment that has had the most bearing apart from the banning of slavery is the last part that grants Congress the legislative powers to enforce this Amendment.

Cases such as Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company (1968) and Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964) held that the government does indeed have the power to make any and all legislation to help enforce the Thirteenth Amendment. This Amendment actually allows the federal government to supercede state legislation in regards to this as it helps bypass the Tenth Amendment. It does so by specifically stating that Congress has the ability to legislate enforcement for this Amendment.

The Thirteenth Amendment was the first important step towards true equality in the United States for everyone. While the Civil War was bloody and nasty, this was necessary to ensure that we allow free access. While this Amendment was mostly accepted it’s the following Amendment that ran into the teeth of the slavery movement and was the hardest to enforce.


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