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The Thirteenth Amendment

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Text of Amendment:

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.

Why This Amendment Exists:

The United States inherited slavery from the colonial regimes that preceded it and, despite founding documents claiming that the U.S. government was to be founded on the principle of universal human rights, preserved it for nearly a century. It was only after the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that wealthy Southern legislators declared that they would secede to protect the institution of slavery. Southern slaveholders created a new pro-slavery nation, the Confederate States of America, and enlisted poor white Southerners to fight the American Civil War on their behalf.

After the bloodiest war in U.S. history, the North defeated the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation had already declared that slaves in the South to be free persons, but slavery was still a reality in five Northern border states. A permanent, constitutional solution seemed to be in order. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

Practical Effect:

The Thirteenth Amendment ended both chattel slavery and legally-sanctioned indentured servitude, but wealthy white Southerners had both political and economic reasons to preserve the status of African Americans as a permanent labor underclass in the South. Their answer was to organize a state's rights movement around the Black Codes, which relegated free black Southerners to a status as close to slavery as the Thirteenth Amendment would allow.

Aided by Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson, an avowed white supremacist, Southern ex-Confederates fought civil rights reform efforts during a period known as the Reconstruction era. Despite subsequent ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and Fifteenth Amendment, white Southerners emerged victorious and soon began a near-century of legalized segregation and exploitation known as the Jim Crow era. Although the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s ended the legal vestiges of Jim Crow, racial class stratification - supported by centuries of institutional racism - largely continues to this day.

The Thirteenth Amendment is seldom cited as grounds for a constitutional challenge today. This is unfortunate, as its language has clear implications for undocumented immigrant labor, the right to have an abortion, the rights of children, private prison labor, and the abuse of mail-order brides.

Frederick Douglass on the Thirteenth Amendment:

When William Lloyd Garrison called for an end to the abolitionist movement in May 1865, believing that the imminent passage of the Thirteenth Amendment meant that it had been victorious, Frederick Douglass would have none of it. Douglass delivered a radical and prophetic speech that outlines both the promise of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the racist legislation that he correctly predicted would soon follow:
"[W]hether this Constitutional Amendment is law or not, whether it has been ratified by a sufficient number of States to make it law or not, I hold that the work of Abolitionists is not done. Even if every State in the Union had ratified that Amendment, while the black man is confronted in the legislation of the South by the word "white," our work as Abolitionists, as I conceive it, is not done. I took the ground, last night, that the South, by unfriendly legislation, could make our liberty, under that provision, a delusion, a mockery, and a snare, and I hold that ground now.

"What advantage is a provision like this Amendment to the black man, if the Legislature of any State can to-morrow declare that no black man's testimony shall be received in a court of law? Where are we then? Any wretch may enter the house of a black man, and commit any violence he pleases; if he happens to do it only in the presence of black persons, he goes unwhipt of justice. And don't tell me that those people down there have become so just and honest all at once that they will not pass laws denying to black men the right to testify against white men in the courts of law ...

"Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot. While the Legislatures of the South retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there. As Edmund Quincy once said, 'While the word 'white' is on the statute-book of Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State. While a black man can be turned out of a car in Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State. While a slave can be taken from old Massachusetts, Massachusetts is a slave State' ... Now, while the black man can be denied a vote, while the Legislatures of the South can take from him the right to keep and bear arms, as they can - they wouuld not allow a Negro to walk with a cane where I came from, they would not allow five of them to assemble together - the work of the Abolitionists is not finished."
The American Anti-Slavery Society dissolved five years later, and it would be another century before the civil rights movement would achieve even the most basic of Douglass' objectives. The work of the abolitionist movement, as Douglass defined it, continues to this day.
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