Amendment 13 – Slavery Abolished, Ratified December 6, 1865.
Section 1. 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 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North- West of the River Ohio, known as the Northwest Ordinance or “The Ordinance of 1787,” an act of the Congress of the Confederation of the United States, passed July 13, 1787.
Article 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.
The 13th Amendment is often referred to as the first of the “Reconstruction Amendments.” While it is true that the abolition of slavery was certainly the first priority for the Congress that conducted the War for the Union, it is not exactly correct to pair the 13th Amendment with the 14th and 15th Amendments, which were literally debated in the context of the aftermath of the war and specifically adopted to extend the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship to the ex-slaves. The 13th Amendment, by contrast, was debated and adopted by the Congress while the war yet raged, and specifically as blow against the rebellion as well as an affirmation of the principle of equality at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. As such, the 13th Amendment represents the cashing of the promissory note that Lincoln issued at Gettysburg in 1863.
The best way to analyze the 13th Amendment, therefore, is to recognize that it was adopted before the Reconstruction Congress took office. Then one may review the dramatic debates in the House of the Representatives and the Senate over the period from early 1864 until spring of 1865, when the resolution sending the 13th Amendment to the States was adopted. The debates of that era opened with a reports and discussion on “equality before the law,” “emancipation in the District of Columbia,” employment rights for American blacks, streetcar discrimination, and similar issues before eventuating in the direct discussion of national abolition.
What makes this progression of interest is that it reveals the Congress tentatively, cautiously, approaching the tricky question of national emancipation, although having a firm grasp of the fundamental rights at stake. What all conceded the Congress had the authority to legislate for the District of Columbia, some doubted that the Congress could even propose to the nation at large. In the end the idea of the authority of the people as a whole — the ultimate ratification authority — trumped arguments about “dispossession of property” and interfering with the “police power” in the states. The matter was sensitive not so much on account of the attitudes of the states in rebellion; it was sensitive because several Border States still held slaves but had been loyal to the Union. The idea of an uncompensated emancipation seemed a hard blow to many of their advocates and was, besides, a departure from the precedent of British emancipation in the West Indies a generation earlier The argument was summed up by Senator Lazarus Powell, Democrat from Kentucky, April 8, 1864:
“We were told by the Government in every form in which it could speak, at the beginning of this revolution, that whatever might be the result, the institutions of the States would remain as they were. The President in his inaugural address, announced that he had no constitutional power to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States. The Secretary of State announced it in a communication which he sent abroad. Congress, by a resolution, announced virtually the same thing when they declared that the object of the war was to restore the Union as it was and to maintain the Constitution as it is.”
Senator Henry Wilson, Free Soiler and Republican from Massachusetts, however, would have none of it. The question for him was a matter of setting the nation “right” and removing a fundamental flaw in its fabric:
Throughout all the dominions of slavery republican government, constitutional liberty, the blessings of our free institutions were mere fables. An aristocracy enjoyed unlimited power while the people were pressed to earth and denied the inestimable privileges which by right they should have enjoyed in all the fullness designed by the Constitution.
Senator Charles Sumner, Republican from Massachusetts, summed the matter up with the observation that the proposed amendment was nothing less than the fulfillment of a promise first expressed at the founding and periodically renewed (as in the Missouri Compromise) only with great controversy. He pointed out, accordingly, that the proposed amendment was nothing less than “the idea of reproducing the Jeffersonian ordinance.”
A quick comparison of the text of the 13th Amendment with the language of Article 6 from the Northwest Ordinance will reveal the point of Sumner’s observation. What Jefferson authored and the Confederation Congress adopted and the new government under the Constitution of 1787 solemnly re-affirmed was, effectively, the incompatibility of republicanism and slavery. While that early declaration applied only to the Northwest Territory, and subsequently, the territorial division established by the Missouri Compromise (1820), its purpose and language were to declare the fundamentals of republican government, as the Northwest Ordinance on the whole does expansively (leading some to call it the “first national bill of rights”).
Although the 13th Amendment avoids the Ordinance’s language with regard to fugitive slaves, that omission is understandable where the objective is no longer to admit slavery anywhere, rather than to temporize with it where it already existed. It is safe to say, therefore, that the meaning of the 13th Amendment is authoritatively to be recovered from the intentions and meaning of the Northwest Ordinance — not a mere administrative regulation concerning slavery, but rather a dramatic recovery of the fundamental meaning of republican freedom.
W. B. Allen is Dean Emeritus, James Madison College; and Emeritus
Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University
Monday, April 23, 2012