The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.
It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the amendment on February 1, 1865. The Thirteenth Amendment is the only ratified amendment signed by a President
On February 7, 1865, Congress passed a resolution affirming that the Presidential signature was unnecessary.
The Thirteenth Amendment was then sent to the state legislatures.
Most Northern states quickly ratified it, though motions to ratify were defeated in the three states won by Democratic candidate George B. McClellan in the 1864 election (Delaware, Kentucky, and New Jersey).
The American Civil War had not officially ended, and the legal status of the defeated Southern states (and by extension, the legal requirements for Constitutional amendment) remained ambiguous.
Nevertheless, ratifications from Reconstruction governments in the Southern states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Virginia, and Tennessee were submitted and accepted.
Kentucky rejected the amendment quickly and bitterly, having considered slavery its reward for loyalty during the Civil War.
Then on April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated.
With Congress out of session, Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson began a period known as “Presidential Reconstruction”, in which he personally oversaw the creation of new governments in seven Southern states.
President Johnson established political conventions populated by delegates he had approved, and strongly encouraged them to ratify the amendment.
Johnson hoped to prevent deliberation over whether to re-admit the Southern states by accomplishing full ratification before Congress reconvened in December.
Direct negotiations between state governments and the Johnson administration ensued. Johnson suggested directly to the governors of Mississippi and North Carolina that they could pro-actively control the allocation of rights to freedmen.
South Carolina’s provisional governor Benjamin Franklin Perry objected to the scope of the Amendment’s enforcement clause; Secretary of State Seward responded by telegraph that in fact the second clause “is really restraining in its effect, instead of enlarging the powers of Congress”.
The white politicians of South Carolina, and of other Southern states, were concerned that Congress might cite the amendment’s enforcement powers as authorization for black suffrage.
When South Carolina ratified the Amendment, it issued its own interpretive declaration that “any attempt by Congress toward legislating upon the political status of former slaves, or their civil relations, would be contrary to the Constitution of the United States”.
Alabama and Louisiana also declared that their ratification did not imply federal power to legislate on the status of former slaves.
With the 39th Congress about to convene, Secretary of State William Seward pressed the remaining states for ratification.
South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia ratified the amendment in November and early December of 1865, bringing the total to 27, three-quarters of the 36 states that had existed before the war.
Secretary of State Seward accepted the conditional ratifications of South Carolina and Alabama.
On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State Seward proclaimed the amendment to have been adopted as of December 6 (the date of Georgia’s ratification), acknowledging thereby that all 36 states were considered valid members of the Union.
It was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the American Civil War.
Oregon and California also ratified in mid-December of 1865.
Florida ratified the Amendment on December 28, 1865; Iowa and New Jersey in January of 1866; Texas in 1870; Delaware in 1901; and Kentucky in 1976.
Mississippi, whose legislature voted in 1995 to ratify, belatedly notified the Office of the Federal Register in February of 2013 of that legislative action, completing the legal process for the state once and for all.
Today, there are only six surviving congressional copies of the Thirteenth Amendment signed by President Lincoln and members of both houses of Congress who voted in favor of the resolution.
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