U.S. Congress Passes 13th Amendment to Abolish Slavery
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, only freed slaves under the control of the Confederate States of America—it did not abolish slavery everywhere. For instance, slavery remained legal in the border states that had remained loyal to the Union. Lincoln was acting with the authority of his war powers, but he knew he did not have the authority to make slavery illegal in the United States. A constitutional amendment was required to accomplish that, and Lincoln urged Congress to propose an amendment permanently banning slavery everywhere in the U.S. On Jan. 31, 1865, the president got his wish when Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution containing this text:
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.
The amendment had been a long time coming. The Senate passed it on April 8, 1864, by a vote of 38-6, but it ran into resistance in the House of Representatives. After much debate the House finally passed the amendment on Jan. 31, 1865, by a vote of 119 to 56, and it was turned over to the states for their votes. The 13th Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865, when the Georgia Legislature became the 27th of the then 36 states to ratify the measure, achieving the necessary three-fourths approval. It had been 61 years since the Constitution was last amended, and the public and press recognized the historic significance of the achievement.
The following five newspaper articles describe the reaction when Congress passed the 13th Amendment. The first three articles describe the prolonged and fervent cheering that greeted the congressional action. The fourth is an editorial pointing out that with the abolition of slavery comes the responsibility of caring for four million freed slaves. The fifth article presents two Southern perspectives on this issue.
This article was published by the New York Daily Tribune (New York, New York) on the front page of its Feb. 1, 1865, issue:
Commencement of a New Era
Death of Slavery
The Constitutional Amendment Adopted
Grandest Act since the Declaration of Independence
Special Dispatch to The N.Y. Tribune.
Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 1865.
The hour has come! The proposed Amendment to the Constitution immediately abolishing and forever prohibiting Slavery comes up for final decision. An anxious throng of witnesses pours into the galleries; there is an air of confidence rising almost to exultation on the Union side, while a sullen gloom settles over the pro-Slavery benches.
…The hour for voting has arrived, and this fact is announced by the Speaker.
…The voting is done. Swift pencils run up the division lists. “One hundred and nineteen to fifty-six!” Hurrah! Seven more than two-thirds!
The Clerk whispers the result to the Speaker. The Speaker announces to the House what the audience quickly interpreted to be THE MIGHTY FACT THAT THE XXXVIIIth AMERICAN CONGRESS HAD ABOLISHED AMERICAN SLAVERY.
The tumult of joy that broke out was vast, thundering, and uncontrollable. Representatives and Auditors on the floor, soldiers and spectators in the gallery, Senators and Supreme Court Judges, women and pages, gave way to the excitement of the most august and important event in American Legislation and American History since the Declaration of Independence.
God Bless the XXXVIIIth Congress!
The work done in securing the passage of this bill has been immense. It has taken the labor of an entire month, night and day, to secure the majority which today so delighted the friends of freedom and of humanity, and so astounded the allies of Slavery.
…Three batteries of regular artillery have just saluted the grand result with a hundred guns, in the heart of the city.
This article was published by the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia) on Feb. 1, 1865:
The Constitutional Amendment
Yesterday the U.S. House of Representatives passed by a vote of ayes 119—nays 56, the following joint resolution:
Be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, (two thirds of both houses concurring) That the following article be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which when ratified by three fourths of said Legislatures, shall be valid, to all intents and purposes, as a part of the Constitution, namely:
Article XIII. 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.
This completes the action of Congress on the proposed amendment, the Senate having agreed to it by a prior vote, and nothing now remains but three fourths of the State legislatures to ratify this amendment, when it will become part of the Constitution of the U.S. When the result was announced in the House of Representatives there was great cheering, waving of handkerchiefs, &c.
The Washington Chronicle in describing the scene says: “Men sprang to their feet, throwing up their arms exultantly, and crying out at the top of their voices. Fair women waved their handkerchiefs and joined in the loud huzzas. The floor of the House resounded with the clapping of hands, the stamping of feet, and the incessant shouting of voices. The galleries echoed back with tenfold enthusiasm the overwhelming demonstration on the floor of the House. Men hugged one another in an ecstasy of delight. They grappled hands &c. This tempest of excitement lasted for several minutes.”
This article was published by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on the front page of its Feb. 1, 1865, issue:
Abolition of Slavery
Adoption of the Amendment to the Constitution by Congress
The Vote Yesterday in the House
Yeas 119; Nays, 56
The Excitement When the Vote Was Announced
Our Special Washington Dispatch.
Washington, Jan. 31st, 1865.
The constitutional amendment was passed this afternoon by a vote of one hundred and nineteen to fifty-six. The scene was one to be remembered by all who were privileged to be present. The floor of the hall was crowded, as were also the galleries, the intense interest of the occasion having attracted the large numbers present.
At the commencement of the session Mr. Ashley, who had the amendment in charge, gave notice that at three o’clock a vote was desired; but it was not until after four P.M. that a vote was reached. Several members discussed the amendment until that time. Mr. Kalbfleisch, of New York, made a speech against the amendment, in which he presented the case in opposition with much ability; but he failed to convince the House. Mr. Sweat, of Maine, was the only New England representative who voted against it. Mr. Cox, of Ohio, had a letter from Mr. Guthrie, of Kentucky, urging him to vote for it, but could not see his way clear to do it, and his vote was finally recorded against it.
Of the New York representatives seven Democrats voted for the amendment, namely: Messrs. Odell, Ganson, Steele, Radford, Nelson, Herrick and Griswold. There were nineteen votes in favor of the amendment from representatives of slave States, and in all twenty democrats in its favor. Of the New England delegation only one—Mr. Sweat, of Maine—voted against it. Every Republican member was in his seat, and voted in its favor.
Upon the announcement of the vote loud and continuous cheering arose spontaneously from the crowd on the floor and in the galleries, and the House immediately adjourned.
This success has inspired a jubilant feeling throughout the city, and the ante-rooms of the hotels were crowded this evening, and general congratulation and rejoicing were indulged in. A salute of one hundred guns was fired immediately upon the passage of the amendment in its honor.
This sober editorial was published by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on Feb. 1, 1865:
As has long been settled by the public sentiment in the North, Congress passed, yesterday, by a most decisive vote, the constitutional amendment blotting out slavery forever from American recognition, protection, or sanction. What is left of this struggle belongs to the courts. This event, so long anticipated, is but a reflex of the Northern, and, as we think, of a large portion of the Southern mind, which looks yearningly towards restoration, and which cannot fail, since slavery has been staked on the chances of war, to regard the Union hereafter as incompatible with the strife to which slavery must now, in the nature of things, give rise. There are many questions involved in this problem of the gravest character; but sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. The legality of the amendment must be referred to the proper tribunal. What its effect may be upon peace propositions, which rumor says are imminent, it were worse than idle to speculate about; but we cannot close our eyes against the urgency of the grave question of political economy which is involved in the status of the freedmen. How this multitude of ignorant and helpless men are to be cared for is such a weight upon the public conscience as should never cease to oppress it, until a clear account can be rendered thereof to Him without whose consent not a sparrow falls to the ground. Indeed, this is no light matter. However necessary and inevitable this consummation of the great struggle, nevertheless, it is perhaps one of the gravest questions ever submitted to statesmen. And its eloquent appeal to power should remind us, as a nation, of where we stand before Him who shall call every responsible being to a rigid account.
This article was published by a northern newspaper, and presented perspectives from two different Southern papers from the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. One paper, the Richmond Enquirer, ran an article claiming that Mr. Blair (in charge of the Northern peace commission) had given assurances the South could keep slavery, as long as the Confederate States rejoined the Union. The other paper, the Richmond Sentinel, basically said the editors of the Enquirer were crazy—the North was not going to permit slavery in any peace negotiations, and the only thing left for the Confederacy to do was to keep on fighting. This interesting article was published by the Daily Age (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on the front page of its Feb. 1, 1865, issue:
From Southern Papers
The Peace Mission
(From the Richmond Sentinel, Jan. 28.)
The late mission of Mr. F. P. Blair naturally excited public curiosity. Many vague surmises have been indulged touching its objects, and some have not only assumed that it related to a termination of the war between the Confederate States and the United States, but have undertaken to state explicitly the terms upon which the olive branch has been extended by the latter. Thus the [Richmond] Enquirer of Thursday says:
“That nothing has been accomplished towards an immediate peace we feel justified in assuring our readers. The enemy are willing to permit us to dictate our own terms provided only we will not dissolve the Union. Any guarantee of slavery, any constitutional provision for its protection and extension, full compensation in greenbacks for all the negroes who have been carried off during the war—anything, everything that we can ask or think will be freely granted it only we will consent to reunite with them. These may not have been exactly Mr. Blair’s terms, but they embrace the substance of the mission, and do not in the least exaggerate the extremity to which the enemy are willing to concede us if we will only return to the Union.”
We are at a loss to know how the Enquirer reaches these conclusions as to the dispositions of the enemy. They are not warranted by any official or semi-official declaration of the United States Government. On the contrary, the Executive head of that government, in his message of December last, [stated] the repeated and oft-declared determination of that despotism to be content with nothing short of the abolition of slavery and the submission of the South. We cannot too strongly caution the public to beware of accepting every idle rumor as an established truth concerning this so-called “Blair Mission,” what it looks to or what it means. It may be assumed that at a proper time all the facts relating to it will be made known, if, indeed, there should be anything worth knowing. The great business of the country now is war, and to that business we should address ourselves with renewed purpose and reanimated resolve to achieve our independence.
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