Thirteenth Amendment (Framing)

Author:Harold M. Hyman

Page 2691

Scholars and jurists have virtually ignored the Thirteenth Amendment, the Constitution's first formal addition in sixty-one years. Reasons for this indifference seem, initially, to be both obvious and adequate. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in December 1865, appears to be a simple, brief statement of the noble, limited effect of the CIVIL WAR.

Its succinct text, written by Illinois Senator LYMAN TRUMBULL, echoed clauses of the NORTHWEST ORDINANCE. In the Civil War's last weeks, during the closing session of the 38th Congress, Senator CHARLES SUMNER tried to substitute for the proposed Amendment's second section one specifying that every person was equal before both national and state laws. Trumbull, a constitutional specialist, favored section 2 in its present form. Sumner and many other congressmen assumed that all parts of the Constitution, including amendments, implicitly authorized enforcement; Trumbull wished to have the amendment empower enforcement explicitly. There was almost no other discussion on the amendment. In a sense, abolition had been before the congressmen and the nation since 1861.

Persons who celebrated abolition's arrival in 1865 did not foresee that race problems and derivative strains in federal relations were to require a FOURTEENTH and a FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT plus enforcement legislation, and would lead to the first IMPEACHMENT of a President. Celebrants of 1865 stressed the "war-gulf" that separated the ratified Thirteenth Amendment from one in early 1861 that Congress had proposed and three states had ratified in a desperate effort to seduce the South from seceding. The aborted Thirteenth Amendment would have forbidden the nation perpetually from curtailing SLAVERY in states where it existed. Thereafter the nation steadily raised both its sense of self-interest and its moral sights. Union troops in the South reported that the only trustworthy residents were black. Though few Negroes lived outside the South, most Northern states had long been racist in laws and customs, if never so fiercely as in the slave states. During the war Northern racism softened, partially as a result of pro-Negro reports from Union soldiers and partly from the diffusion of ABOLITIONIST CONSTITUTIONAL THEORY. Before the war, abolitionists, long hard-pressed even in the North, had come to scorn the Constitution, for it did not protect them against unpunished harassments. But once the war started, Union and abolition became identified. Gradually...

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