- 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 Thirteenth Amendment (1865) was the first one adopted since 1804. In the intervening sixty years, America grew numerically, expanded geographically, and fought in three wars. Yet in all that time the unanswered question of slavery in a land of freedom persisted.
Economics, politics, religion, and more were tied up in the issue of slavery. The North and the South came to hold rather different opinions on these matters. Compromise after compromise throughout the 19th century tried to keep the country together, but eventually things reached a breaking point: Civil War. Passed through Congress near the end of that conflict (as dramatized in the recent movie Lincoln), the Thirteenth Amendment finally changed things.
If memory serves, it was one of the historians I read this summer in my journey through The Oxford History of the United States who noted that America is a nation of lofty aspirations whose actions did not always measure up. All the same, our stated principles remain important, for their very existence impels the nation onward, not allowing us to be ultimately satisfied with half measures.
So it was with the issue of slavery.
In a country that boldly proclaims “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” the existence of slavery was always a great hypocrisy. That is took so long for us to remove it is a great shame. Even so, our eventual ability–in this case, at least–to align principles with legal reality is encouraging. It should cause us to consider how we might do so in the present. Because there are always things–good things–that we claim this country is about that don’t actually happen.
What does American claim to be that it isn’t and what do we have to do to change that? The Thirteenth Amendment confronts us even today.