Handwritten copy of the 13th Amendment signed by Abraham Lincoln
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The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially abolished slavery in America, and was ratified on December 6, 1865, after the conclusion of the American Civil War. The amendment states: “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 the American Civil War (1861-65) began, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) carefully framed the conflict as concerning the preservation of the Union rather than the abolition of slavery. Although he personally found the practice of slavery abhorrent, he knew that neither Northerners nor the residents of the border slave states would support abolition as a war aim. However, by mid-1862, as thousands of slaves fled to join the invading Northern armies, Lincoln was convinced that abolition had become a sound military strategy, as well as the morally correct path. On September 22, soon after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave (there were an estimated 800,000 slaves in border states and some 3 million more in Confederate states), it was an important turning point in the war, transforming the fight to preserve the nation into a battle for human freedom.

The president and his fellow Republicans knew that the Emancipation Proclamation might be viewed as a temporary war measure and not outlaw slavery once the Civil War ended, so they focused on passing a constitutional amendment that would do so. The 13th Amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate (which was dominated by Republicans) on April 8, 1864. However, the amendment died in the U.S. House of Representatives as Democrats rallied in the name of states’ rights.

The presidential election of 1864 brought Lincoln back to the White Housealong withRepublican majorities in both legislative bodies. On January 31, 1865, the amendment passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 119 to 56, seven votes above the necessary two-thirds majority. Several Democrats abstained, but the 13th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification, which came on December 6, 1865. With the passage of the amendment, the “peculiar institution” that had indelibly shaped American history was eradicated.