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It was the 13th Amendment

It really wasn’t the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the enslaved.


The Legal Genealogist doesn’t want to take anything away from the majesty of that document or the man –President Abraham Lincoln — who issued it.

Declaring, as it did, that “all persons held as slaves … are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons” was a monumental thing.1

But despite that language the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all those who were held as slaves.

As explained by the National Archives:

Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory.


Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.2

So as important as the Emancipation Proclamation was, it was something else that permanently ended enslavement in the United States. And that something was yet another amendment to the United States Constitution — the 13th amendment to be exact, ratified 153 years ago today, on 6 December 1865:

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.3

13th Amendment

The history of that amendment is a story in itself. It begins, of course, when a ship called the White Lion arrived in Virginia in August, 1619, and the concept of African enslavement first reared its ugly head in what became the United States.4 It took a war and this amendment to the Constitution to bring it to a close.

It was introduced in the Senate on February 8th, 1864,5 and passed there on the eighth of April 1864.6 But in the first vote in the House of Representatives on the 15th of June that year, it went down to defeat.7

President Lincoln refused to accept no for an answer: “At that point, Lincoln took an active role to ensure passage through congress. He insisted that passage of the 13th amendment be added to the Republican Party platform for the upcoming Presidential elections.”8 And on this day in 1864, Lincoln made a special plea to the Congress in his fourth annual message:

At the last session of Congress a proposed amendment of the Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the United States, passed the Senate, but failed for lack of the requisite two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives. Although the present is the same Congress, and nearly the same members, and without questioning the wisdom or patriotism of those who stood in opposition, I venture to recommend the reconsideration and passage of the measure at the present session.9

The House then took it up again in the early days of 1865,10 and the amendment finally passed there on 31 January 31 1865.11

Illinois was the first of the states to ratify the proposed amendment, voting on the first of February, followed the next day by Rhode Island, and the day after that by Michigan, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.12 Ratification by 27 of the 36 states was required, and the number of states that had approved kept growing through the early months of 1865, … but it then stalled.

By the fall of 1865, 23 states had given their assent. But if the amendment was to become law, it needed ratification by at least some of the states that had been in rebellion. South Carolina voted in November. Alabama on December 2. North Carolina on December 4. And, finally, on the 6th of December — 153 years ago today — Georgia put the amendment over the top.13

And, with that ratification, the 13th Amendment became the law of the land and that amendment — not the Emancipation Proclamation — put a permanent end to enslavement in all its forms — including, by the way, providing the legal framework for laws against modern sex trafficking.

That’s not of course the end of the story. Ratification votes continued to occur for a very long time after 6 December 1865, sometimes after an initial vote to reject the amendment. Oregon, California and Florida voted later in 1865; Iowa and New Jersey in 1866; Texas in 1870; Delaware in 1901; Kentucky in 1976; and the very last — Mississippi — in 1995, a vote that was certified in 2013.14

From a genealogical standpoint, then, it’s today — the 6th of December — that we need to celebrate as a high watermark day. Individuals who had been little more than tick marks on a slave census, or first names in a property list, gained legal recognition as full legal persons — and records began to be created in their own names, rather than in the names of their enslavers.


  1. Transcript of the Proclamation,” Featured Documents : The Emancipation Proclamation, U.S. National Archives ( : accessed 6 Dec 2018).
  2. Featured Documents : The Emancipation Proclamation, U.S. National Archives ( : accessed 6 Dec 2018).
  3. United States Constitution, 13th amendment, ratified 6 December 1865, 13 Stat. 774-775 (18 Dec 1865).
  4. See “Virginia’s First Africans,” Encyclopedia Virginia ( : accessed 6 Dec 2018).
  5. Congressional Globe, 8 February 1864, 38th Congress, 1st Session, at 521; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 6 Dec 2018).
  6. Ibid., 8 April 1864, at 1490.
  7. Ibid., 15 June 1864, at 2995.
  8. 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865),” Our Documents ( : accessed 6 Dec 2018).
  9. Congressional Globe, 6 December 1864, 38th Congress, 2nd Session, at 3).
  10. See e.g., 6 January 1865, ibid. at 138.
  11. Ibid., 31 January 1865, at 531.
  12. Wikipedia (, “Thirteenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution,” rev. 6 Dec 2018.
  13. See ibid.
  14. Ibid.
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