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This Day in History: 13th Amendment Abolishes Slavery

  • VOA News

The joint resolution on the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Jan. 31,1865. (Courtesy: National Archives)

One of the most consequential amendments to the United States Constitution is the 13th.

When it passed the House of Representatives on Jan. 31, 1865, it read: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude …shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

And with that, America’s long and brutal history of enslaving black Americans was over.

Russ Maki, president of Graphic Conservation Company displays a rare copy of the 13th Amendment that ended slavery in this 2011 file photo.
Russ Maki, president of Graphic Conservation Company displays a rare copy of the 13th Amendment that ended slavery in this 2011 file photo.

The U.S. Civil War began in 1861, testing the very heart of America: its unity. The goal, as stated by then-President Abraham Lincoln was the restoration of the Union.

But early in the war, the Union began keeping escaped slaves rather than returning them to their owners, so slavery essentially ended wherever the Union army was victorious.

"Uncle" Demus Taylor of Moore County, N.C., age 113, was awarded first prize as they oldest former slave, at ending Old Slave Day, a feature of the Spring Blossom Festival at Southern Pines, N.C., April 14, 1934
"Uncle" Demus Taylor of Moore County, N.C., age 113, was awarded first prize as they oldest former slave, at ending Old Slave Day, a feature of the Spring Blossom Festival at Southern Pines, N.C., April 14, 1934

In 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in areas that were rebelling against the Confederate South.

The 13th Amendment was not the first attempt to eradicate slavery. In 1864, an anti-slavery amendment passed the U.S. Senate, but died in the House of Representatives as Democrats rallied in the name of states’ rights.

President Abe Lincoln, the "rail splitter," at work repairing the Union.
President Abe Lincoln, the "rail splitter," at work repairing the Union.

The election of 1864 brought Lincoln - a Republican - back to the White House, along with notable Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. It seemed as though the amendment was headed for passage when the new Congress opened in early 1865.

Some Democrats indicated support for the amendment, but many others resisted.

The 13th amendment passed 119 to 56, seven votes above the necessary two-thirds majority. In December, states ratified the 13th Amendment.

Black Americans register to vote as South Carolina Democrats in Charleston, S.C., July 17, 1948.
Black Americans register to vote as South Carolina Democrats in Charleston, S.C., July 17, 1948.

Despite the official end of slavery, it wasn’t until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that black Americans were considered equal under the law.

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