While the Thirteenth Amendment was set into law, thus outlawing slavery anywhere in the United States, on December 6, 1865 when it secured the needed 27 of 36 states’ approval (3/4), it wasn’t until 130 years later on March 16, 1995 that Mississippi finally got around to ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment. As you might expect, this made Mississippi the last state to ratify it, with the previous state of the initial 36 being Kentucky in 1976 and before that Delaware in 1901. All three of those states, along with New Jersey, initially rejected the amendment in 1865, though just 9 months after rejecting it, New Jersey changed their mind and ratified it. The others took a little longer.
The Thirteenth Amendment specifically states:
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.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Interestingly, The Thirteenth Amendment almost stated the exact opposite of what it ended up saying. A few years before the amendment to abolish slavery was proposed as the Thirteenth Amendment, The Corwin Amendment was proposed in 1861 and would have been the Thirteenth Amendment, had 3/4 of the states ratified it. This proposed amendment would have forbid Congress from passing any laws that restricted or abolished slavery. Further, it would have made it illegal for any anti-slavery amendment to be made to the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, it stated:
No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.
This Corwin Amendment managed to make it passed the House and the Senate in March of 1861 and was signed by President Buchanan thereafter. Ohio, Maryland, and Illinois ratified it. Although, once the American Civil War started, the Corwin Amendment lost any momentum it had, because it had largely been proposed to forestall the chance of a Civil War. Once the war started, Ohio rescinded their ratification.
The Corwin Amendment was passed without an expiration, so it’s still on the table today for states to ratify, if they so choose. The most recent attempt to do so was in Texas in 1963, with a resolution to ratify it put forth by Republican Henry Stollenwerck from Dallas. This failed to generate any momentum for the Corwin Amendment, though, and the resolution wasn’t considered by the state legislature.
If you’re curious, there are some exceptions to that “involuntary servitude” bit in the Thirteenth Amendment beyond as a “form of punishment”. For instance, the Supreme Court ruled in 1918 that the military draft does not constitute “involuntary servitude”, even if the people drafted do not want to join the military. This seems to fly in the face of the generally accepted legal definition of involuntary servitude which includes, “a person held by actual force, threats of force, or threats of legal coercion in a condition of slavery – compulsory service or labor against his or her will.”
This case was brought before the Supreme Court after the passing of the Conscription Act of 1917. After this Act was passed, military tribunals tried various people who refused to bear arms, wear uniforms, etc. when drafted. More shockingly, a board was put together to try consciousness objectors. The only people at this time who were allowed to be conscientious objectors were Amish, Quakers, and members of the Church of the Brethren. If the board decided they weren’t sincere enough, they were sentenced. These were no light sentences either, 17 people were sentenced to death, 142 were given life sentences in prison, and 345 were sentenced to penal labor camps for varying time periods.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Conscription Act of 1917, citing Article I. Section 9, of the Constitution which gives Congress the power to “declare war… to raise and support armies… to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.” Of course, this says nothing about the government being able to force people to join the military, only that they have the authority to build and support the armies. But, none-the-less, they upheld it anyways, further citing Vattel’s, The Law of Nations:
It may not be doubted that the very conception of a just government and its duty to the citizen includes the reciprocal obligation of the citizen to render military service in case of need, and the right to compel it. … To do more than state the proposition is absolutely unnecessary in view of the practical illustration afforded by the almost universal legislation to that effect now in force.
- Around 64,700 total Amish, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren members claimed conscientious objector status during WWI. Of those, 21,000 were inducted into the military anyways (out of 30,000 who passed their physicals). Once in the military, about 16,000 of those conscientious objectors decided to fight. The remaining 4,000 continued to refuse to bear arms.
- The Thirteenth Amendment took two tries to be approved by both the House and the Senate, the second try of which Lincoln had to take a more active role to get it passed. In the first try, in 1864, the Senate passed the amendment, but the House did not. Lincoln then added the amendment as part of the base Republican Party platform in the elections. This resulted in Republican support swelling amongst voters. He then asked Congress to re-consider, stating, “Of course the abstract question is not changed, but an intervening election shows, almost certainly, that the next Congress will pass the measure if this does not. Hence there is only a question of time as to when the proposed amendment will go to the States for their action. And as it is to so go, at all events, may we not agree that the sooner the better?… It is the voice of the people now, for the first time, heard upon the question. In a great national crisis, like ours, unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable — almost indispensable. And yet no approach to such unanimity is attainable, unless some deference shall be paid to the will of the majority, simply because it is the will of the majority.” Reading between the lines, if the Democrats at the time who refused to support the Thirteenth Amendment wouldn’t pass it now, he was telling them the voters would soon replace them with Republicans who would. So in the interest of keeping their jobs, they should reconsider, regardless of their own personal feelings over the matter.
- The Emancipation Proclamation was a master stroke by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. At the time, the British were actively supporting the South, even though slavery had been more or less outlawed throughout the British Empire since the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, excepting with the East India Trading Company territories and certain other “apprentice” stipulations for slaves over the age of six, which were subsequently removed in 1838. They’d also outlawed slave trading further back in 1807. By Lincoln using his war powers to free slaves in ten states, via the Emancipation Proclamation (freeing 3.1 of the 4 million slaves in the U.S., though only 20,000-50,000 immediately who lived in areas controlled by the Union), he made emancipation of slaves the explicit point of the war. As such, the British and the French, among other European powers, could no longer aid the South, or it would seem as if they were supporting slavery. This also eased tensions between several European powers and the Union, such as Britain. It further had the effect of numerous slaves attempting to escape to Northern lines where they’d instantly be free, undermining the South’s labor forces. Finally, it helped make the Civil War explicitly a “race war”, which helped pave the way for the Thirteenth Amendment. The full text of the Emancipation Proclamation can be read here: Transcript of the Emancipation Proclamation
- The first state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment was Illinois on February 1, 1865. Within a week, 10 other states, Rhode Island, Michigan, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Missouri, Maine, Kansas, and Massachusetts, also ratified it.
- Another potential exception to the Thirteenth Amendment, though this can be argued because public school is somewhat voluntary after a certain point, was ruled by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Immediato v. Rye Neck School District. In the Rye Neck School District, it was required that students perform 40 hours of community service in order to graduate High School, even though this has nothing to do with academics. Daniel Immediato and his parents argued that this “imposes involuntary servitude upon Daniel, in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment; infringes on Daniel’s parents’ Fourteenth Amendment right to direct his upbringing and education; infringes on Daniel’s personal liberty, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; and violates Daniel’s right to privacy, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.” (The latter point being because after performing their hours of community service, students were then required to write a report and present to the school on how the community service benefited them). The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that this does not violate the Thirteenth Amendment and dismissed the other points as well.
Expand for References
- Thirteenth Amendment
- Draft Law Upheld
- Arver vs. U.S.
- Conscription in the U.S.
- 13th Amendment Text
- Slavery Abolition Act of 1833
- Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution
- 13th Amendment
- Reconstruction Amendments
- Emancipation Proclamation
- Fourteenth Amendment
- Fifteenth Amendment
- Transcript of the Emancipation Proclamation
- Image Source