Slavery defined the foundational years of the United States socially and politically. Since 1776, labor from enslaved Africans was a vital cog in the American agricultural and economic machine. However, during the early 1800s, anti-slavery sentiment grew as those in power began to acknowledge the inherent immorality of the practice. Northern states began to phase out slavery while politicians like Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens pushed for abolition on a national scale. This was largely resisted by Southern states, though, since their mainly agricultural economy directly relied on slave labor to turn such large profits.
This clash of ideologies between the North and the South would eventually boil over and spark the nearly four-year-long Civil War. During it, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves would be freed as of 1863, and he offered the Southern states re-entry into the Union if they, too, abolished slavery. Even after the end of the war, the Southern states did not readily accept this, making the Reconstruction of the United States challenging. The Thirteenth Amendment was proposed in 1864 to declare slavery unconstitutional, and with no Southern states present, was debated by Congress into 1865. The Amendment passed by a slight majority and was slowly ratified by the 36 United States over the next several years.
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
What Does It Mean?
While the Constitution never explicitly mentioned slavery prior to the Thirteenth Amendment, it did allow for involuntary servitude that was, in essence, slavery. Involuntary servitude is when someone is forced to work under physical or legal coercion by their boss. Section 1 of the Amendment straightforwardly declared both illegal. The one notable exception is prison labor. If someone is found guilty of a crime, they can be forced to work.
Section 2 permits Congress to pass laws that punish violations of the Amendment. Courts have ruled that this section also allows Congress to pass laws that remove the “badges and incidents of slavery.” This means that Congress can enact legislation against racial discrimination and other practices reminiscent of the injustices of slavery.
Major Court Cases
The Thirteenth Amendment is one of the most litigated Amendments of the US Constitution. It has been the subject of several landmark Supreme Court decisions—some good and some bad. The 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history. Homer Plessy was a Louisiana man of seven-eighths European and one-eighth Black descent. He was arrested for boarding a “whites-only” train car, and he argued that such a discriminatory law banning his entry was reminiscent of the injustices of slavery. The Court ruled 7-1 against Plessy. The decision paved the way for states to legally get away with racial segregation and discrimination for years to come.
In 1968, Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. became a turning point in the federal government’s willingness to limit racial discrimination. The Joneses were a Black family in St. Louis, Missouri, who sued a real estate company that refused to sell them a house. Like Plessy, they claimed a refusal of service based on race constituted the “badges and incidents of slavery” that was ostensibly outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment. This time, however, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Joneses, reaffirming Congress’s responsibility to enact legislation against racist practices. Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. has been used as precedent in countless cases since, including other cases of racial discrimination, the rights of migrant workers, and victims of sex trafficking.
Although the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, discriminatory labor practices and outright racism against Blacks persisted long after the Amendment’s ratification. Many Southern states enacted laws known as Black Codes to govern their newly freed Black population. These Black Codes built barriers to prevent Blacks from successfully working and just living in these places. Most notable was a broadly defined vagrancy law, which allowed police forces to arrest homeless African Americans for minor offenses and force them into legally permissible slave labor. The Black Codes were not fully phased out until the late-1900s. However, some modern practices, such as anti-gang police tactics that target generally low-income African American and Latino groups, are considered contemporary versions of the Black Codes under a different name. These laws and practices operate as means of preserving the social hierarchy of the slave era that rendered minorities inferior to whites.
The Black Codes and their modern parallels exploit the clause in the Thirteenth Amendment that exempts prison labor from the term “involuntary servitude.” The prison labor exception justifies the unpaid labor of jailed individuals, who are disproportionately people of color. Mass incarceration, the widespread imprisonment of mostly people of color for seemingly minute offenses, is a morally reprehensible practice that is legal under the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment. It is the subject of massive reform efforts since many people believe that incarcerated individuals should receive compensation for their labor.
The Thirteenth Amendment is arguably the most important constitutional Amendment outside the Bill of Rights. Slavery was a heinous practice that persisted since America’s founding. Legally abolishing it allowed for Reconstruction to take place. But the Thirteenth Amendment was just one step in the right direction: its ratification did not elimate all the effects of slavery. While it’s essential to study the history of the Thirteenth Amendment and its impact, it’s even more vital to examine where it fell short in combating the deeply ingrained racism of the United States that persists to this day. Otherwise, we’ll never get to the heart of the Amendment: equality regardless of race.