“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”.
Well known not only inside, but outside the United States of America as well, “Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution” in the very first sentence notifies the reader about its meaning and importance. The 13th amendment officially prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude (only if used as a punishment for a crime). It was adopted on December the 6th, 1865, after it was passed by the Senate (on April the 8th, 1864) and by the House (on January the 21st, 1865).
After the United States Constitution had been adopted on September the 17th, 1787, twelve amendments were adopted in the following 15 years. After the twelfth one, there was no adoption of a new amendment for the next 60 years. In order to abolish slavery within the USA, and due to fact that they were already having military actions against the slave trade, John Quincy Adams (who later became the sixth president of the United States) was the first to propose amendment; this event occurred in 1839. His proposal did not pass and 24 years went by before Representative James Mitchell Ashley supported (in 1863) an amendment that would abolish the slavery throughout the United States of America.
Arise of New Proposals
The proposal by James Mitchell Ashley (which was followed by a similar proposal by Representative James F. Wilson) can be considered as a trigger to several legislative proposals that arose in the following year (despite the little press attention in the beginning). Senator John Henderson submitted a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery (the event occurred on January the 11th, 1864). Illinois Republican Lyman Trumbull, who headed The Senate Judiciary Committee, started to consider several versions of the abolition amendment. In February, Senator Charles Sumner (who was a leading Radical Republican at the time) submitted a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equality under the law as well. Finally, on February the 10th, the previously mentioned Senate Judiciary Committee reported to the full Senate an abolition amendment. This final version was made off Ashley’s, Henderson’s and Wilson’s drafts.
The first House vote was held on February the 15th, 1864. The proposed amendment did not receive the necessary two-thirds majority, as the voting result was 78-62. Of 53 Democrat voters, 52 were against, while the situation was adverse with Republicans where only 2 voted against. The substitute abolition amendment (sponsored by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens) did not receive enough votes again on March the 28th. The 13th amendment passed the Senate few weeks later (on April the 8th), when the voting result was 38-6.
As mentioned in the introduction, the amendment was adopted on December the 6th, 1865, and finally declared by William H. Seward, who was the Secretary of State. This final event occurred on December the 18th, 1865.
Harper’s Weekly magazine: archive
United States Constitution: 13th Amendment
Joanne Turner-Sadler: African American history: an introduction, 2009.