On this dayDec 18, 1865

Thirteenth Amendment Certified With Loophole Permitting Slavery As Punishment For Crime

On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward certified that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had been officially approved.

A constitutional amendment to forever abolish slavery was first proposed in the United States Congress in December 1863, during the Civil War and just months after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation legally freed enslaved Black people in rebelling states. Though the proclamation was a war measure that the government had little ability to enforce (because it applied only in states that had declared themselves a separate nation), an emancipation amendment would concretely establish slavery as contrary to the foundational principles of the United States. The Senate passed the abolition amendment on April 8, 1864. After an initial vote against it, months of debate and negotiations, and President Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, the House passed the amendment on January 31, 1865.

Before the amendment could be added to the Constitution, two-thirds of the states - 27 out of the then-total 36 - had to ratify it. Northern states quickly did so. Many Southern states were reluctant but slowly followed after the Confederacy's surrender in April 1865 and passage of federal legislation that conditioned readmission to the Union on ratification of the amendment. In early December 1865, Georgia became the 27th state to approve ratification, and adoption was officially announced soon afterward.

The Amendment’s final text, still in effect, prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime -- and that exception has proven a dangerous loophole. Many Southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries passed laws authorizing the “leasing” of predominantly Black state prisoners, who worked for no pay, in inhumane and deadly conditions, often while serving unjust sentences. As recently as 2010, in Serra v. Lappin, a federal court cited the Thirteenth Amendment in rejecting a lawsuit filed by federal prisoners, holding that “prisoners have no enforceable right to be paid for their work under the Constitution.”

13th Amendment

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