The American Civil War wasn’t just a military conflict. There was also a major political and legal struggle that took place alongside the military campaigns.
In the last months of the war, President Abraham Lincoln knew that if the war was to truly be the end of the conflict, it was necessary to ban slavery once and for all.
That would require changing the constitution.
Learn more about the 13th Amendment and the battle for its ratification on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
If you remember back to my episode on the election of 1864, there was no guarantee that Lincoln would win. The Civil War was extremely unpopular in some circles in the north, and many of the Union’s early setbacks were placed squarely at the feet of the President.
However, nothing is more popular than winning, and success on the battlefield led to an overwhelming victory for Lincoln.
In fact, by late 1864, it became obvious to many people that the North was going to win. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea devastated Southern logistics and supplies.
The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, ensured that wherever the Union army went, slaves would be freed, and in fact, slaves would go out of their way to flee to Union lines to seek their freedom.
This rendered every slave-owning farm and plantation wherever the Union army went uneconomical as they lost their entire supply of forced labor.
The Emancipation Proclamation, however, was not a law. It was a military order issued by Lincoln in his position as the commander-in-chief, and it only applied to states that were in rebellion.
Many people don’t realize that there were slave states that were in the Union. In particular, in Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky, slavery was still legal.
Once the war ended and the southern states were admitted back into the union, the Emancipation Proclamation would become null and void, and slavery would once again become legal.
Lincoln realized that if slavery wasn’t ended once and for all, the country could be back at war within a generation.
You might be wondering, why not just pass a law banning slavery?
The reason had to do with how the constitution was interpreted in the 19th century. The constitution enumerates specific powers to the federal government. At the time, the general consensus was that the federal government couldn’t do anything not explicitly granted to them in the constitution.
This was the genesis behind the whole issue of states’ rights.
Furthermore, even if Congress did pass a law banning slavery, the law could easily be overturned in the future.
The solution had to be a constitutional amendment. Legally, the US Constitution trumps everything else at the state and federal levels. Moreover, while passing a constitutional amendment is much more difficult, overturning it would be just as hard.
You might think that after several years of a bloody war, which had slavery as the root cause, abolishing slavery would have been easy.
This was not the case.
Passing a constitutional amendment requires two-thirds of both houses of congress to support the amendment. Then once it passes congress, it must be approved by three-fourths of the states.
Lincoln’s Republicans were staunchly abolitionist at this point. They held the majority of the seats in the 37th congress in both the house and the senate.
The Democrats, however, were not so keen on a formal abolition of slavery. Their primary concern was the restoration of the Union at any cost.
In particular, they were willing to accept a negotiated compromise with the South to end the war. They felt that if the constitution formally abolished slavery, then the South would have no incentive to come to the negotiating table, and the war would drag on even longer.
An amendment was first proposed in the Senate in April 1964. It easily blew through the Senate with a vote of 38 to 6, with only two Democrats voting in favor of the amendment.
In June, the amendment was sent to the House, where it failed to get two-thirds approval by only 13 votes.
Congress adjourned in July with the amendment hanging over the country during the election.
Once the election of 1864 was over, and Lincoln won with a resounding victory (with 70% of the vote from the active military, I might add), he had the mandate he needed to pursue an amendment to abolish slavery.
This became his top legislative priority.
Congress reconvened in December, and the first order of business for the majority of Republicans was passing a constitutional amendment.
The goal was only 13 votes away. If they could close that gap, then they could get the amendment to the states.
Debate in the house was fierce, but there was surprisingly no longer any attempt to justify slavery on moral grounds. With the southern contingent absent, the argument shifted exclusively to states’ rights and the merits of allowing freed slaves to become citizens.
Lincoln, however, knew that the amendment wouldn’t pass by debate and changing minds. He pulled out all the stops and ordered his Secretary of State, William Seward, to get votes by any means necessary.
He was reported to have said to his allies in Congress, “I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.”
Thankfully, this was a lame-duck season of Congress. The election had already taken place, and the new Congress wouldn’t be sitting until March.
This left many members of Congress without job prospects once this session was over if they didn’t run or if they had been voted out of office.
Seward offered plum civil service jobs to Democrat members of Congress if they would change their vote. They provided campaign contributions, and they also resorted to flat-out cash bribes. Lincoln was truly willing to do anything to get this passed.
Going into January, the estimated vote totals were getting close.
While all this politicking was happening behind the scenes, something happened that upset the process.
The winter was not going well for the Confederacy. Word had spread that a delegation from the South was on its way to Washington to discuss the terms of a peace treaty.
This is exactly what the Democrats had been hoping for, and it was an excuse for them to continue to hold out as the amendment would nix any hopes of a negotiated peace.
Lincoln personally inserted himself into the affair and assured them that there was no Confederate delegation in Washington, which was true. More on that in a bit.
On January 31, 1865, the United States House of Representatives approved the 13th Amendment to the constitution with a vote of 119 to 56. Just one vote more than what was needed.
On February 1, Lincoln himself signed the document, even though the president had nothing to do with the passage of a constitutional amendment.
Representative Thaddeus Stevens, the leading abolitionist in the House and the man who probably pushed harder for the passage of the amendment, said afterward, “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
The text of the amendment was short and simple. It said,
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.
When Lincoln said that no Confederate delegates were in Washington, he wasn’t lying. However, he also wasn’t exactly telling the truth.
Just days after the vote in the House of Representatives, Lincoln and Seward met with representatives of the Confederacy, including the Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, on a steamboat in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
The meeting was very short and lasted less than five hours. The Confederacy, at this point, was nearing collapse, which is why they wanted to talk in the first place. The Union was in a position of strength and had no reason to make any concessions.
The only thing Lincoln offered was unconditional surrender. The passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress proved that slavery was no longer an issue for negotiation.
On February 1, the amendment went out to the states. There were 36 states at that time, including the states in rebellion, and 27 were required for ratification.
By the end of the month, 18 states ratified the amendment, including the former Confederate states of Louisiana and Virginia, which reconstructionist governments now ran.
Lincoln, of course, never lived to the final ratification of the 13th Amendment. He was killed in April of 1865, just days after the end of the war on April 9.
There was a great deal of debate as to if the governments in former Confederate states were valid governments for the purposes of ratification. There was no definitive answer to the question.
Ratification of the amendment was held over the heads of the southern states as a condition of rejoining the union in full. Knowing that the war had been lost, the efforts of southern politicians were now ensuring that the constitution didn’t prevent the federal government from regulating how they treated freed slaves.
By the end of the summer of 1865, 23 states had ratified the amendment, including Arkansas and Tennessee.
In November, it was ratified by South Carolina. Then in the first week of December, it was ratified by Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia.
Georgia was the 27th state, and on December 6th, 1865, the 13th Amendment became part of the US Constitution.
Six more states formally ratified the amendment in the 19th century, and in the 20th century, Delaware, Kentucky, and Mississippi all did as well, overturning their initial rejection.
In some ways, the 13th Amendment can be seen as the fulfillment of the Civil War. After all the fighting and deaths, it was this short piece of law that ended the practice of slavery in the United States.
The 13th Amendment didn’t solve all the problems that slavery caused. The nation has struggled with those problems for over 150 years, and they are still echoing throughout history to the present day.
Nonetheless, the 13th Amendment stands as one of the most important acts ever passed in the United States.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
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The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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