The 13th Amendment: History and Impact

Black and white etching of slaves freed after the US Civil War

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified just months after the end of the American Civil War, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude—except as a punishment for a crime—in the entire United States. As passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, the full text of 13th Amendment reads:

Section One

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.

Section Two

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Along with the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment, the 13th Amendment was the first of the three Reconstruction Period amendments adopted following the Civil War.

Two Centuries of Slavery in America

While the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the U.S. Constitution as originally adopted in 1789 had both stressed liberty and equality as foundations of the American vision, the 13th Amendment of 1865 marked the first explicit mention of slavery in the Constitution.

Since the 1600s, slavery and the slave trade had been legal in all 13 American colonies. Indeed, many of the Founding Fathers, though feeling slavery as wrong, owned slaves. While President Thomas Jefferson signed an Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807, slavery—particularly in the South—flourished until the start of the Civil War in 1861.

As the Civil War began, an estimated 4 million people—almost 13% of the total U.S population at the time—most of them African Americans, were held as slaves in 15 southern and the North-South Border States.

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