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

Rierson, Sandra L., Tracing the Roots of the Thirteenth Amendment (April 10, 2021). University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Review, Forthcoming, Thomas Jefferson School of Law Research Paper No. 3824019, Available at SSRN:

Sandra L. Rierson (Contact Author)

Thomas Jefferson School of Law ( email )

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Suite 110
San Diego, CA 92101
United States
619-961-4297 (Phone)

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