Ending Slavery in the United States

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865. This amendment abolished slavery in the United States. The language of the amendment is clear: “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 practice of slavery in the United States did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation—that it did is a common misunderstanding. The proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, did not apply to the entire U.S. The Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people who lived in any of the Confederate states that had seceded from the Union. With the Thirteenth Amendment, the ending of slavery became the law of the land.

In 1776, slavery was legal in all 13 U.S. colonies. By the time the Civil War started in 1861, about four million people were enslaved in 15 states. In 1860, enslaved people represented one eighth of the population of the U.S.

At the start of the Civil War, some people in the North did not support fighting against slavery. Although they did not want the expansion of slavery, they were not certain that slavery needed to be ended completely. However, when the war escalated after the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, people reconsidered the role that slavery played in causing the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln thought that it was a bad idea to fight such a bloody war without plans to eliminate the practice of slavery. Issued on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation stated that any enslaved people in rebellious territory would now be considered free. Although its purpose was mainly symbolic, the Emancipation Proclamation was an important step in ending slavery. Previously, the Civil War had been fought to reunify the United States. With the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery became one of the Union’s stated goals for fighting the war.

In the 1864 presidential election, Lincoln’s party, the Republicans, called for the “utter and complete destruction” of slavery. Members of the opposing Democratic party felt that the decision whether to maintain slavery or not should be left to individual states. When Lincoln became victorious in the election, it was simply a matter of time before an anti-slavery amendment would be proposed.

Indeed, the U.S. Congress started considering proposals for an amendment to the Constitution that same year. In addition to ending slavery, some of the proposals also included language meant to prevent discrimination against African Americans. The official language of the Thirteenth Amendment came from the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was influenced by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which banned slavery from the area north of the Ohio River. The Senate passed the amendment in April 1864. Next, the amendment would need to pass the House of Representatives.

The House debate was divided largely on party lines. Republicans were against slavery, while many Democrats were not ready to abolish it. “The disruption of the Democratic party now going on is watched with satisfaction and joy upon the Republican side of the House,” reported the New York Daily Tribune. “Anxiety and gloom cover the obstinate body-guard of Slavery, whose contracting lines break with the breaking up of their party.” However, as the debate continued, some Democrats changed their minds and allied with Republicans.

The passing of the Amendment in January of 1865 was met with great excitement by its supporters. “The result of the vote was noted on a piece of paper and handed to the Speaker, who announced the passage of the joint resolution by a vote of 119 yeas against 56 nays,” reported the Fremont Journal from Ohio. “Thereupon rose a shout of applause. The members on the floor huzzaed in chorus with the galleries. The ladies in the House assemblage waved their handkerchiefs, and again and again the applause was repeated.”

Now the Amendment had to be ratified by individual U.S. states. States agreed with the amendment, and when Georgia did so on December 6, 1865, it was the last state needed to ensure that the institution of slavery ceased to exist in the United States.

While the Thirteenth Amendment ended the practice of holding African American people as slaves, it ended the practice of peonage as well. Previously, if people could not pay the money they owed, they could be forced to work to pay off their debt. This practice was called peonage. Former slaves and poor people could become indebted to merchants or plantation owners for living and working expenses under peonage. They would become trapped in a cycle of working to pay debts without earning any money. The amendment addressed this issue, however, it did not forbid forcing people convicted of a crime to work.

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