Abraham Lincoln and the Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment

by Allen C. Guelzo

Lincoln’s handwritten notes for his Annual Report to Congress, urging Congress t“Those who knew Mr. Lincoln best,” wrote Illinois Congressman Isaac Arnold, “knew that he looked, confidently, to the ultimate extinction of slavery” and used “every means which his prudent and scrupulous mind recognized as right and proper, to hasten its ultimate overthrow.”[1] This was, however, no easy aspiration for Abraham Lincoln, even as president. Slavery was protected from the touch of presidents (and the rest of the federal government) by state law, and the best Lincoln could have hoped to accomplish when he became president in 1861 was to prevent slavery’s growth beyond the fifteen Southern states where it was then legal.

The attempted secession, after Lincoln’s election, of eleven of those states to form the Confederacy changed that situation, and allowed Lincoln to move against slavery as an object of war. Flexing his “war powers” as the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,” Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which declared all of the slaves held in the rebel states “thenceforward, and forever, free.”

But even as commander in chief, Lincoln’s hands were not entirely free to strike slavery down. For one thing, his presidential “war powers” only gave him authority to reach slaves in rebel-held territory—not the four border states of Missouri, Delaware, Kentucky, and Maryland, which remained loyal to the Union but where slavery remained legal, nor the portions of the rebel states which had been re-conquered by federal forces by January 1863. Also, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves—it did not end slavery as a legal institution. Above all, Lincoln worried about the federal courts, which were reluctant to recognize any such presidential war powers.

The only way to make emancipation stick, and to cleanse the nation entirely from slavery, was to amend the Constitution. There was, however, little hope of persuading Congress to adopt such an amendment, or to expect the states to ratify it, during the first two years of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation stimulated a political backlash among white Northerners that cost Republicans thirty-one seats in Congress, and led to race riots in northern cities in the summer of 1863. That December, when Congress assembled, James Ashley of Ohio introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to amend the Constitution by abolishing slavery, followed by a similar resolution in the Senate. The Senate gave the amendment a solid 38-to-6 approval in April 1864. But after six months of debate, the proposed amendment won only 93 votes in the House, well short of the two-thirds majority required by the Constitution for amendments.[2]

However, despite fears to the contrary, in the fall of 1864, Lincoln won a resounding re-election, and with that momentum behind him, he endorsed the proposed amendment as the only way to “meet and cover all cavils” about the abolition of slavery.[3] In his December 1864 annual message to Congress, he called for “reconsideration and passage” of James Ashley’s “proposed amendment of the Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the United States.”[4] And when Ashley moved reconsideration on January 6, 1865, Lincoln went to work, dangling rewards and twisting congressional arms, until on January 31, the reconsideration squeaked through the House by seven votes.[5]

The amendment resolution was signed by the Speaker of the House—Indiana representative (and future vice-president) Schuyler Colfax—and by Lincoln’s vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, as presiding officer of the Senate, with certification by John W. Forney (whose Washington newspaper, the Daily Morning Chronicle, was ardently pro-Lincoln) as secretary of the Senate and by Edward McPherson (whose family farm had been fought over during the battle of Gettysburg) for the House. And although the amendment process does not require a presidential signature, Lincoln nevertheless signed his name to the resolution the next day, writing out in full (as he rarely did), Abraham Lincoln.

The text of the amendment—the thirteenth in the sequence of constitutional amendments—is simplicity at its simplest. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That evening, after signing the resolution, Lincoln described the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as an “occasion . . . of congratulation to the country and to the whole world.” For all those who feared “whether the [Emancipation] proclamation was legally valid,” the Thirteenth Amendment provided “a King’s cure for all the evils,” as though slavery were a kind of scrofula, which only the touch of an ultimate authority could make disappear.[6] The amendment would be formally ratified on December 6, 1865—a ratification that Lincoln, sadly, would not live to see.

[1] Isaac Arnold, The History of Abraham Lincoln and the Overthrow of Slavery (Chicago: Clarke & Co., 1866), 218.

[2] Henry Wilson, History of the Anti-Slavery Measures of the Thirty-Seventh and Thirty-Eighth United-States Congresses, 1861-64 (Boston: Walker, Wise & Co., 1864), 247, 265, 271.

[3] Abraham Lincoln, Reply to Committee Notifying Lincoln of His Renomination, June 9, 1864, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), 7: 380.

[4] Abraham Lincoln, “Fragment of last annual message to Congress concerning the Thirteenth Amendment,” December 6, 1864, The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society (GLC08094).

[5] Michael Vorenberg, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 253.

[6] Abraham Lincoln, Response to a Serenade, February 1, 1865, Collected Works, 8: 254.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College.


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