On January 31, 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives passed what would become the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime. As vividly portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, it was Abraham Lincoln’s greatest legislative victory. Once ratified by the requisite number of states, it would bring the nation’s policies and practices one huge step closer to matching the ideals of liberty and equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence; to borrow the President’s language at Gettysburg, it would signal a “new birth of freedom”. Ratification would in fact happen quickly, by the end of the year, but unfortunately for Lincoln, this would be eight months after his untimely death.
That the Constitutional Amendment bearing the number thirteen turned out to be such a ‘lucky’ one for the future of the country is all the more remarkable given that it very well could have been just the opposite! Just four years earlier, with the threat of civil war hanging in the air, a very different 13th Amendment was passed by Congress in a final attempt to pacify the South and avert war. If it had been ratified by the states, it would likely have turned out to have been a rather unlucky occurrence in the nation’s history, a ‘kiss of death’ to liberty and equality.
This earlier proposed amendment, passed by Congress just two days before Lincoln was sworn in as President, stated: “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 service by the laws of said State.” Of course, in 1861 everyone understood perfectly that this referred specifically to the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ of human slavery.
Lincoln actually gave his tacit approval to this proposed amendment in his inaugural address: “holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable”. The new President was undoubtedly hoping that it might avert bloodshed, and further hoping that the South would someday still abolish slavery on its own. But this and all other attempts at a peaceful solution to the slavery issue would soon be swept away by the start of the Civil War.
Curiously, this earlier proposed 13th Amendment – the unlucky one which would have further entrenched slavery in the American system – is technically still pending before the states, as that was before Congress put ‘expiration dates’ on proposed amendments. Of course, it is pretty much a moot point now since it would conflict with the actual 13th amendment, the lucky one which abolished slavery.
The actual 13th Amendment, by the way, was noteworthy for being the first to radically change some aspect of the Constitution. In fact, some had opposed it for that very reason, arguing that it was more revolution than amendment! It completely overturned a very important provision in the Constitution: instead of protecting slavery, the Constitution now outlawed it. In stark contrast, the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, simply made explicit certain rights which many of the framers of the Constitution felt were already implicitly guaranteed, and the 11th and 12th Amendments served mostly to clarify or refine certain provisions in the light of practical issues and judicial decisions.
Others had opposed the 13th Amendment, or any new amendments for that matter, because by that time the Constitution was increasingly being viewed as a sacred and already perfect text. There hadn’t been a successful amendment in over sixty years, still the longest-ever interval between amendments. In addition, the number twelve is considered to denote completeness and perfection, while the number thirteen destroys that completeness and perfection.
The proposed 13th Amendment therefore had a lot going against it, and so Lincoln took no chances. He actually signed the amendment, something which is not required, just as President Buchanan had signed the earlier proposal four years before; in fact, the 13th Amendment remains the only ratified amendment ever signed by a President. More significantly, even though it might have endangered the amendment’s survival, Lincoln insisted that the southern states be a part of the ratification process so that it would be “unquestioned and unquestionable”.
Lincoln knew that the complete abolition of slavery, if finally accomplished, would be his legacy to history. His Emancipation Proclamation two years before had been a good start, but it was a war measure and might easily be overturned in the future. This constitutional amendment would be the permanent solution. As he told a crowd on the very day it was sent to the states for ratification: “This amendment is a King’s cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up.” We can be thankful for the Great Emancipator’s vital role in ‘winding the whole thing up’ and finally ridding the nation of the scourge of slavery.
One final note: For the record, the first state to ratify the lucky 13th Amendment – and on the very day it was submitted to the states for consideration – was none other than Lincoln’s adopted home state of Illinois. Perhaps her people felt a little guilty that they had been one of just three states to ratify the earlier unlucky amendment, and the only one of these three to not have rescinded it!
January 31, 2016