Thirteenth Amendment summary: The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States and was the first of three Reconstruction Amendments adopted in the five years following the American Civil War. The 13th Amendment, passed by Congress January 31, 1865, and ratified December 6, 1865, states:

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.

2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Although President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, there were several problems with relying on it to ensure an end to slavery in the U.S. The proclamation was issued using Lincoln’s war powers and there was concern it could be seen as temporary. The proclamation also only freed slaves, it did not abolish slavery itself. It also applied only to the states that actively rebelled on January 1, 1863, but did not apply to slave-holding border states or to areas of Confederate states already under Union control at the time.

In December 1863 and January 1864, two bills and a joint resolution were introduced into the House and Senate, all making similar proposals for a Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The Senate Judiciary Committee worked to combine these proposals and present them to the Senate, which passed the amendment on April 8, 1864, in a 38 to 6 vote. Unfortunately, the House did not act similarly and the amendment had to be reintroduced. This time, President Lincoln took a more active role in getting it through the house by making it part of the Republican platform in the upcoming election. The House passed it on January 31, 1865, and it was sent to the state legislatures for ratification. On December 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment was adopted—three-fourths of the states had ratified it. All but three of the remaining states had ratified it by 1870 (two of those would not ratify it until the second half of the 20th century): Delaware ratified it on February 12, 1901, Kentucky on March 18, 1976, and Mississippi on March 16, 1995.

A 2012 film, Lincoln, produced by Stephen Spielberg, was based on the fight to pass the 13th Amendment.

The Corwin Amendment

Two previous amendments proposed by Congress would have become the 13th Amendment but were not ratified. The Titles of Nobility Amendment was presented to states in 1810 and was ratified by 12 states; it would have revoked the U.S. citizenship of anyone accepting a foreign title of nobility or foreign payment without Congressional authorization.

Another attempt to write the 13th Amendment began in December 1860, when states of the Deep South were threatening to secede from the Union following Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the presidential elections. The so-called Corwin Amendment—named for Thomas Corwin, an Ohio Republican who chaired the Committee of Thirty-three that introduced the amendment into the House of Representatives—was a compromise measure passed to prevent that secession. The Committee of Thirty-three was formed at the request of President James Buchanan to explore an amendment to deal with the secession crisis; the committee included one representative from each state. The committee’s first proposal, introduced on January 21, 1861, failed to pass the House.

On February 26, Corwin introduced an abridged version of the proposed amendment. This one was the same as one that had been proposed and rejected by Senate in December.

The Senate had formed a Committee of Thirteen for the same purposes as the House’s Committee of Thirty-three. It had produced a proposed amendment submitted by New York Republican senator William Seward, the future secretary of state under President Abraham Lincoln. It would have prohibited Congress from ever abolishing or interfering with slavery. It read:

That no amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or servitude by the laws of said State.

The House failed to pass the amendment on February 27, but the following day it was accepted on a vote of 133 to 65. The Senate voted to adopt it on March 2, by 24 votes to 8.

Although a proposed constitutional amendment does not require a president’s approval, President Buchanan on his last day in office, March 3, 1861, took the unusual step of signing the bill. The following day, President Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, said he had “no objection” to the proposed amendment “being made express and irrevocable.” He sent it to the states for ratification or rejection. Only Ohio and Maryland ratified it; Illinois approved it in a constitutional convention, but that vote was nullified because ratification of amendments requires approval by state legislatures, not special conventions. Ohio rescinded its approval on March 31, 1864. An attempt that year to halt the national ratification process never passed the Senate; technically, the Corwin Amendment is still awaiting action by state legislatures.