Happy birthday, 13th Amendment!

Slaves in Virginia in the 1670s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Today we celebrate the anniversary of the 13th Amendment (ratified December 6, 1865). Here’s what you need to know:


The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.


The delegates at the Constitutional Convention wrestled with the issue of slavery. Southern delegates had threatened to leave the convention if slavery was in jeopardy, while other delegates were opposed, or at least hesitant, to enshrine the “peculiar institution” in the Constitution.

In the end, the delegates compromised:

  • Article I, Section 2, allowed three-fifths of the number of slaves to be included in population counts that determined taxation and representation.
  • Article I, Section 9, prevented the importation of slaves from being banned until the year 1808.
  • Article IV, Section 2, required that slaves escaping to another state be returned to their prior state.

The fact that the delegates avoided using the word slavery reflects their discomfort with the topic. The Constitution variously refers to slaves as “all other Persons,” “Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” and “Person[s] held to Service or Labour in one State.”

Ultimately, the Constitution managed to delay, but not resolve, the problems of slavery. Tensions about slavery and states’ rights culminated in the ultimate constitutional crisis, the Civil War.

Related Story: The case of the missing 13th Amendment to the Constitution

During the war, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered the freedom of slaves in Confederate states. To solidify the freedom of all slaves, a constitutional amendment was needed. (Abraham Lincoln’s pursuit of the 13th Amendment is thoroughly explored in the recent film Lincoln.)

The 13th Amendment was the first of three “Reconstruction amendments” passed after the Civil War. The 14th Amendment defined U.S. citizenship, including former slaves. The 15th Amendment said no one could be denied the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Nearly a century after it was created, the Constitution finally drew closer to the self-evident truth set forth in the Declaration of Independence–that “all men are created equal.”


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.

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