Congress Passes 13th Amendment, 150 Years Ago

By Christopher Klein on January 30, 2015 for—
“On January 31, 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in the United States. On the 150th anniversary of the vote, look back at the evolution of President Abraham Lincoln’s support for the 13th Amendment and his behind-the-scenes dealings to ensure its continued path to ratification.

The 13th Amendment, bearing Lincoln's signature (Credit: National Archives)

Although he believed slavery to be immoral, Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist when the Civil War broke out in 1861. The president’s stated goal in the early years of the war was strictly the preservation of the Union. Granting freedom from bondage to the nearly 4 million slaves in America was a secondary concern. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery,” he wrote in a famous letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

Lincoln’s position would pivot, however, as the war progressed. By the fall of 1862, he had begun to believe that freeing the slaves could aid in his ultimate goal of reuniting the states as he saw the military benefit provided by the thousands of slaves who had fled their owners and joined the Union forces fighting behind enemy lines. After the hard-fought Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all slaves in areas still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Since it did not apply to border states or slave-holding territory already seized by the North, the Emancipation Proclamation had a much greater symbolic than practical effect.”

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