150 years ago this weekend, slavery in the United States was dealt a deadly blow. On January 31st, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in the House of Representatives (it had passed in the Senate in April of the previous year) by a vote of 119 to 56. The amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States, could then be put before the states for ratification. While the Emancipation Proclamation had only freed the slaves in the Confederacy, the 13th Amendment made the abolition of slavery a national policy. The amendment reads simply:
“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.”
With just these few words, upon its ratification in December 1865 the amendment promulgated the death of slavery in the United States. The February 1st edition of The New York Tribune described the scene in Congress upon the amendment’s passage, saying “the tumult of joy that broke out was vast, thundering, and uncontrollable. Representatives and Auditors on the floor, soldiers and spectators in the gallery, Senators and Supreme Court Judges, women and pages, gave way to the excitement of the most august and important event in American Legislation and American History since the Declaration of Independence. God Bless the XXXVIIIth Congress!”
Yet it was clear to some that more would be needed to secure true freedom for the former slaves. Arguing against the disbandment of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Frederick Douglass stated that “even if every State in the Union had ratified that Amendment, while the black man is confronted in the legislation of the South by the word ‘white,’ our work as abolitionists, as I conceive it, is not done.” Douglass had the foresight to realize that despite the major victory that was the 13th Amendment’s passage, there was still much work to be done before blacks in the newly-reunited States would be truly free.