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The Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution

13th Amendment

The Text

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.

The Meaning

In 1863, based on his war powers (see Article II, Section 2), President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves held within any designated state and part of a state in rebellion against the United States. The Proclamation provided “all persons held as slaves . . . are, and henceforward shall be free . . . ” Because the Proclamation did not address slaves held in the Northern states, there were questions about its validity.

Following the end of the fighting, on February 1, 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and forwarded it to the states. It was ratified on December 18, 1865. The Thirteenth Amendment was the first of three Reconstruction Era amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) that eliminated slavery, guaranteed due process, equal protection and voting rights to all Americans.

By its adoption, Congress intended the Thirteenth Amendment to take the question of emancipation away from politics. The Supreme Court found in In Re Slaughter-House Cases, that the “word servitude is of larger meaning than slavery . . . and the obvious purpose was to forbid all shades and conditions of African slavery.” Although some may have questioned whether persons other than African Americans could share in the amendment’s protection, the Court held that the amendment “forbids any other kind of slavery, now or hereafter. If Mexican peonage (the practice of forcing someone to work against one’s will to pay off a debt) or the Chinese coolie labor system shall develop slavery of the Mexican or Chinese race within our territory, this amendment may safely be trusted to make it void.”

In more recent cases, the Supreme Court has defined involuntary servitude broadly to forbid work forced by the use or threat of physical restraint or injury or through law. But the Supreme Court has rejected claims that define mandatory community service, taxation, and the draft as involuntary servitude.