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The Thirteenth Amendment

By Richard Striner


On 18 December 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, thus ending the epochal struggle to kill American slavery. But the long struggle to achieve full equality regardless of race was just beginning.

When Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, he knew very well that it might eventually be overturned in court as unconstitutional. That was why in December 1862 he urged Congress to pass a package of constitutional amendments that would engraft his administration’s policies on slavery into the Constitution itself.

On 14 December 1863, Representative James Ashley introduced a resolution for a single constitutional amendment that would end slavery. Several other members of Congress introduced resolutions that differed in language from the text that Ashley had proposed. The Senate Judiciary Committee synthesized the various proposals and the Senate passed the constitutional amendment on 8 April 1864. But the measure was bogged down in the House of Representatives.

The presidential election of 1864 was extremely dangerous for Lincoln and the Republicans. War-weariness and a white supremacist backlash against emancipation made Republicans, including Lincoln, run scared. One of the symptoms of Republican fear was the decision to dump Lincoln’s vice president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, and replace him with a southern unionist Democrat, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. While publicly de-emphasizing the stalled Thirteenth Amendment, Lincoln quietly worked behind the scenes to have the Republican platform endorse it.

Photo of Lincoln, 1865
Photo of Lincoln shortly before he died, 10 April 1865. Edited by Soerfm. CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

After the tide of war turned to the extent that Lincoln was re-elected in a landslide, the president lobbied the outgoing Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. The extent of this campaign must to some extent remain mysterious, since Lincoln left few records of his back-room maneuvering. But its nature can grasped by its depiction in the recent Stephen Spielberg film, Lincoln.

When the House of Representatives passed the amendment (by the necessary two-thirds super-majority), Lincoln was jubilant. He called the amendment “the King’s cure for all the evils” and said that the occasion was “one of congratulation to the country and to the whole world.”

On 5 February 1865, Lincoln secretly proposed to his cabinet an audacious (and absolutely unprecedented) plan to assure that the amendment would be ratified by the necessary two-thirds of the states. Lincoln actually suggested that Congress should pay all the slave states to ratify — to the tune of $400 million. But the members of Lincoln’s cabinet resisted the proposal, so the president shelved it.

By the time that Lincoln was assassinated, most of the northern states were in the process of ratifying the amendment.  While the new president, Andrew Johnson, was committed to its ratification — he saw the destruction of slavery as a blow to the leadership elite that had master-minded secession — he was no friend to the freedmen. Johnson told the governors of several southern states that the blacks could still be “kept in their place” through state legislation that would reduce them to second-class citizens. When South Carolina ratified the amendment, the ratification was conditional: a declaration was attached to the effect that Congress would have no right to legislate on the political status of the former slaves. Alabama did the same thing.

It was the duty of William Seward, the Secretary of State, to coordinate the ratification process and pronounce it complete when the requisite three quarters of the states (in this case 36 states) had ratified. After Georgia had ratified (on 6 December), Seward proclaimed on 18 December 1865 that the constitution had been duly amended.

But the joyousness of this occasion, at least among those who detested slavery, would prove to be less than it might have been if only Lincoln were alive. In the final speech of his life, Lincoln endorsed the idea of black voting rights. There can be little doubt that the re-elected president would have worked with the Republican super-majorities that would dominate the next Congress to create a Reconstruction that would give the newly-freed slaves a decent chance at full citizenship. But John Wilkes Booth had destroyed that incipient future. Instead, the new Republican Congress would be forced to work with an obstructive white supremacist Democrat in the White House, Andrew Johnson. And, as events turned out, the civil rights revolution would have to wait another hundred years.

Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, is the author of several books including Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery, Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power, and Lincoln and Race. His latest presidential study — Woodrow Wilson and World War I: A Burden Too Great To Bear — will be published in spring 2014.

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