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.
The Declaration of Independence, penned in 1776, proclaimed that “All men are created equal,” and “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
God gives rights; government serves God and the people by protecting rights. America’s Founding Fathers recognized this principle, but our young country failed to protect the God-given rights of some Americans. In the U.S., the practice of slavery continued throughout the Revolutionary War and the birth of our new country, and for nearly 100 years afterward.
It was not until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in 1865, that our government established a protection of liberty for all Americans, specifically liberty from slavery or forced labor.
For centuries, slavery was a worldwide phenomenon, legal and socially acceptable in many empires, countries, and colonies. From their early development, the southern American colonies relied on slavery as integral to their agricultural economy. But opposition to slavery – in the colonies and abroad – was growing stronger throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
In America, religious groups including the Quakers strongly opposed slavery and advocated for its abolition. Pressure from Quakers in Pennsylvania led to the passage of the state’s “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” in 1780, only four years after the establishment of the United States as a country.
The British government put an end to slavery in its empire in 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act. The French colonies abolished it 15 years later in 1848. These worldwide events added fuel to the anti-slavery movement in the U.S.
Some American Abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, called for the immediate emancipation of all slaves. Other Americans who opposed slavery did not call for immediate emancipation, but instead hoped that the containment of slavery to the southern states would lead to its eventual end.
The American Civil War broke out in 1861 when several of the southern slave states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. This dark chapter of America’s history ultimately decided the fate of slavery when the nation came back together after the defeat of the Confederate States.
President Lincoln dreamt of an America where all people were free. In fact, he declared all slaves to be free in his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. An amendment to our Constitution followed as the next step to make the end of slavery a permanent part of our nation’s governing document.
Together, at the end of the Civil War, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments greatly expanded the civil rights of many Americans.
While the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, it did not grant voting rights or equal rights to all Americans. Nearly a century after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed racial discrimination and segregation.
Sadly, the Thirteenth Amendment did not bring about an immediate or total end to slavery in the U.S. Today, it is estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked into our borders for commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor each year. This is in clear violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, and Americans should work toward a swift end to human trafficking in the U.S. and all over the world.
Before our Declaration of Independence was written, English philosopher thinker John Locke developed the idea that individuals have the natural right to defend their life, health, liberty, and possessions (or property). While the United States has always and should always protect the property rights of individuals, the Thirteenth Amendment makes it clear that owning “property” in the United States cannot mean owning another person.
Individual liberty for all and the God-given right to pursue happiness are not compatible with slavery. The end of slavery with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment is one of the most “American” of all of our historical events, because this event brought our country closer in line with the principles upon which it was founded.
Hadley Heath is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum. (www.iwf.org)