What is the 13th Amendment? - Summary, Definition & Ratification

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  • 0:02 Emancipation…
  • 1:48 Passing the 13th Amendment
  • 3:45 Reconstruction…
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

Gaining equal rights as citizens has been a long and drawn out process for African Americans. Learn how the 13th Amendment started this process by eliminating the institution of slavery.

Ending Slavery

Many people think that the Emancipation Proclamation resulted in the total abolition of slavery. While the Emancipation Proclamation did free some slaves, the 13th Amendment called for the total abolition of slavery. It was the primary piece of legislation that permanently ended the institution of slavery in the United States, and it was passed in 1865.

The Civil War

Let's look at the chain of events that led to the permanent abolition of slavery. Slavery had been intrinsic to the Southern economy dating back to the beginning of the United States. By 1861, the United States was embroiled in the violent Civil War. In order to preserve the institution of slavery, many Southern states wanted to leave the Union, and the issue of secession was at the forefront of the conflict. However, by 1862, President Abraham Lincoln understood that the issue of slavery had to be addressed as well.

He had to approach the issue of slavery with extreme caution in order to not lose support for the war effort. His solution was to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

The Emancipation Proclamation - A Good Start

The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Lincoln under his authority as commander-in-chief. The proclamation, which was authorized following a Union victory at Antietam, was primarily a military order that freed slaves residing in rebelling Confederate states. The order did not free slaves in states controlled by the Union nor in Confederate states that were not in rebellion. Still, it was an enormous step towards abolition.

By the end of 1863, Lincoln realized that the abolition of slavery must be officially incorporated into the United States Constitution. In 1864, Congress began looking at several ideas to end slavery. The Senate Judiciary Committee assumed control of the legislation and eventually drafted a constitutional amendment that went before the Senate for approval, passing there on April 8, 1864, in an overwhelming majority of 38-6.

A Bump in the Road

However, it still needed to pass in the House of Representatives, which it failed to do shortly thereafter. In 1864, the House was controlled by Democrats sympathetic to Southern rights. While the Senate Republicans campaigned for complete abolition, the House Democrats focused on states' rights, hoping to protect slavery. The life of the amendment depended on the 1864 presidential election.

Lincoln made abolition the key component to his re-election campaign in 1864. He encouraged voters to pressure their representatives to adopt the 13th Amendment. Thanks to a resounding victory in the presidential election and heavy pressure on the Democrats by Republicans, the amendment passed the House of Representatives, 119-56, on January 31, 1865.

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