Tracing the Roots of the Thirteenth Amendment
64 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2021
Date Written: April 10, 2021
This article examines the origins of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which ended chattel slavery in the United States. The 1776 Report, released in the waning days of the Trump Administration, proclaims that “[t]he foundation of our Republic planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America,” and, further, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “set the stage for abolition.” The report suggests that the Thirteenth Amendment sprang from a preordained Revolutionary seed and naturally came to fruition.
The history of the Thirteenth Amendment tells a different story. The Thirteenth Amendment’s nationwide abolition of chattel slavery, under the authority of the federal government, required a radical reordering of fundamental Constitutional principles that did not proceed in a straight line from the Declaration of Independence to Emancipation. Part I of this article examines that history at the time of the Founding. Prior to ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the word “slavery” did not appear in the Constitution, yet its influence reverberated throughout the document. Part II of the article examines the surprisingly dim prospects for nationwide emancipation in the antebellum period, as illustrated by the Dred Scott decision and the Corwin Amendment, which almost precluded any future Constitutional amendment ending slavery. The eventual adoption and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 was a monumental achievement, not a foregone conclusion.
Keywords: Slavery, Thirteenth Amendment, Reconstruction, Emancipation, Legal History, Constitutional History
JEL Classification: K19, K30
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation