13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. It also grants Congress the power to enact laws that enforce the Amendment. Ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, it was the first amendment to mention the institution of slavery. To explore this concept, consider the following 13th Amendment definition.

Definition of 13th Amendment


  1. The amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.

What is the 13th Amendment?

Though the Declaration of Independence embodied the concept of freedom and equality, it failed to address the subject of slavery. In fact, slavery was legal in all 13 colonies when the Second Continental Congress adopted the declaration in 1776.

In 1864, the U.S. Senate proposed an amendment banning slavery, but the House of Representatives did not pass it. When Congress reconvened later that year, Republicans proposed the amendment again and Lincoln pressured opponents to change their positions.

On January 31, 1865, the House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. It abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except when used as a punishment for criminals. In this 13th Amendment example, punishment of involuntary servitude only applied to those lawfully convicted of a crime. It did not apply to the accused.

“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.”

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

Reconstruction Amendments

The 13th Amendment was one of three Reconstruction Amendments adopted in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Together, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments intended to grant freedom to former slaves and prevent discrimination. Because of state laws and federal judicial decisions, the Reconstructions Amendments had little effect until the 1950s and 1960s.

14th Amendment

In 1866, representative Thaddeus Stevens introduced an amendment that granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States. It also guaranteed all citizens, including former slaves, equal protection under the law. Johnson and Southern states resisted, but it became the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868.

15th Amendment

The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, granted African American men the right to vote. The Amendment prohibited the government from denying a citizen the right to vote regardless of race, color, or prior enslavement .

Abolition of Slavery

African slavery began in North America when a Dutch ship carrying 20 Africans landed at Jamestown, Virginia. The Dutch traded the slaves to the Colonials in exchange for food and supplies. By the late 1700s, the practice became a vital part of the economy in the Southern states. Many Northern colonies disagreed with the practice and called for an abolition of slavery. Vermont became the first colony to completely abolish slavery in 1777, and many Northern states followed.

In 1808, the Constitution prohibited the practice of importing slaves and, in 1819, it became a capital offense. The Missouri Compromise banned slavery in new Western colonies in 1820. The Southern states saw this as a threat to slavery as a whole. In 1857, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision known as the Dred Scott Decision. It ruled that black people, free or enslaved, could never become citizens, therefore they could not sue in federal court. The decision further fueled the Abolition Movement.

President Abraham Lincoln strongly opposed slavery and, in 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This freed slaves in rebellious states. It changed the American Civil War from a fight to preserve the nation into a fight for human freedom. Still, it took a Union victory and the 13th Amendment for the country to see an official abolition of slavery.

Impact of the 13th Amendment

The entire nation quickly began feeling the impact of the 13th Amendment. The South clung to its racist roots and life did not improve for most freed slaves. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, firmly believed in state rights, and not the meaning of the 13th Amendment. His Reconstruction policies required states to uphold abolition of slavery but gave them freedom in rebuilding their governments.

This led to the enactment of black codes in all southern states, which continued to force many into involuntary labor. Many of the codes required African-Americans to sign yearly labor contracts. If they refused, they were often arrested or forced into unpaid labor.

A black code in South Carolina was an example of the 13th Amendment’s failure to truly free the slaves. In that state, African-Americans could only work as farmers or servants unless they paid an annual tax. The codes outraged Republican members of Congress and they blamed Johnson and his Reconstruction policies.

Other examples of the 13th Amendment’s impact included the nullification of the Fugitive Slave Clause and the Three-Fifths Compromise. The Fugitive Slave Clause required the return of fleeing slaves to their owners. The Three-Fifths Compromise — enacted in 1787 — required three-fifths of the slave population count towards apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. Many people adopted the saying that one black individual was equal to three-fifths of one person.

Civil Rights Act of 1886

In response to black codes, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1886, despite Johnson’s veto. The Act invalidated the codes by defining citizenship and granting all citizens equal rights. This meant that African-American men could enjoy the same rights as white men — to a point. This included suing in court, selling or purchasing property, and enforcing contracts. The Act also instructed states on how to enforce the new law, and explained the punishments for violators.

By the 1890s, southern states created segregation laws. They also took measures such as enacting literacy tests in order to exclude African-American voters. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld these laws and the number of registered African-American voters sharply declined. It would take many more years before the country felt the impact of the 13th Amendment.

Proposals of the 13th Amendment

After passing the 12th Amendment, Congress adopted proposals of this new Amendment, but the states failed to ratify them. The proposed 13th Amendment examples included the Titles of Nobility Amendment and the Corwin Amendment.

  • The Titles of Nobility Amendment would strip citizenship from citizens who accept a foreign title of nobility without Congressional approval.
  • The Corwin Amendment would have banned the federal government from abolishing slavery in the states.

13th Amendment Example Applied to the Sale of Property

In the late 1960s, Joseph Lee Jones attempted to purchase a house in St. Louis County, Missouri, but the owner, Alfred H. Mayer, refused to sell to him. Jones filed a lawsuit against Mayer contending that Mayer only refused to sell to him because of his race. Jones relied heavily on 42 U.S. Code § 1982, which prohibits racial discrimination in the sale or rental of property.

The District Court ruled to dismiss the case at the respondent’s request. The Eight Circuit court affirmed this decision. Both courts held that Section 1982 only applied to the state, and did not apply to private parties selling their own property. Jones appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the judgement.

In this important example of 13th Amendment enforcement, the Court ruled that Congress could regulate private property sales if needed to prevent racial discrimination. It based its decision on the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and held that it prohibited both private and state-backed discrimination. It also reiterated that in all 13th Amendment examples, Congress had the power to prohibit private acts of discrimination.

The Court referred to the Act of Congress, 42 U.S.C. § 1982 which provides that:

“All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Amendment – The modification, correction, addition to, or deletion from, a legal document.
  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • Declaration of Independence – The formal statement that declared the freedom of the thirteen American colonies from the rule of Great Britain.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • Institution – An organization or society founded for a religious, social, business, or educational purpose.
  • Offense – The act of excluding or leaving something out; a failure to do something, especially something for which there is a moral or legal obligation to do.
  • Respondent – The individual against whom a petition is filed, also referred to as “defendant” in some cases.