Today In History – January 31

On January 31, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment passed in the House of Representatives and went on to be signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law. This wartime measure stated that “…all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government… will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons….”[1] The Emancipation Proclamation was one of the first steps forward for African Americans. Unfortunately, this Proclamation was only a wartime measure that applied solely to southern states.[2]These states were in open rebellion and did not abide by the United States Constitution or any Proclamations the President might issue. “State officials denounced the Emancipation Proclamation as unconstitutional and refused to recognize the liberty of any black person “claiming or pretending to be free” under its terms.”[3] There was also the issue of those people that were being held as slaves in border States would remain in bondage. There was also the chance that, should the war end, those freed that they may as a patient proclamation could be reenslaved. As the war raged on, it became clear that the time had come to push for true and legal emancipation. Thus began the road toward the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Equality before the law was an essential belief amongst Radical Republicans. African Americans would never be able to see themselves as equals or even have a chance at being treated as such if there was no official legislation declaring them as such. After much push, an Amendment declaring slavery illegal was passed on January 31, 1865. It stated, “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.”[4] The Thirteenth Amendment shaped the beginning of Reconstruction. No matter what happened in the war, slavery was over in the United States of America. “The Thirteenth specifically enumerated by the Bill of Rights, but also secures freedom from all forms of arbitrary domination.”[5] The Thirteenth Amendment was needed to pave the way to ensure that those once held in bondage would never be held in such circumstances again. Be that as it may, African Americans were still seen as second-rate citizens. One of the most important ideologies floating around Reconstruction was that these African Americans had to be helped seen as equals. Although many Congressmen believed that the Thirteenth Amendment was enough to see to this, most Radical Republicans did not.

Time and time again, the leaders of the Radical Republicans, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania pushed for more radical versions of the Thirteenth Amendment. Their outrage had to be met with compromise, which meant that full equality was not reached with the passage of one Amendment.

[1] Abraham Lincoln, “Emancipation Proclamation” (National Archives, October 6, 2015), 1,
[2] The issue of the Emancipation Proclamation is more extensive than it might seem at first glance.
[3] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1988), 37.
[4] “13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery” (U.S.. Congress, January 27, 2016),
[5] Alexander Tsesis, The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History (New York, New York: New York University Press, 2004), 105.

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