Saturday Marks 150th Anniversary of Congress Outlawing U.S. Slavery

By Sarah Davis

January 31st marks a monumental moment in the history of slavery in the United States. On that date 150 years ago, the House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It abolished legal slavery in the United States. Within eight months, the required three-quarters of the states ratified the amendment and it became law.

The 13th Amendment faced many challenges, but the poignant moment of its congressional passage was only the beginning of a long process to eradicate slavery in the United States - an effort that continues today in the modern anti-slavery movement.

The text of the 13th Amendment was short and direct: "Neither slave 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."

Its final congressional passage shortly after the Civil War was not coincidental. President Abraham Lincoln was adamant the amendment be secured before Southern states were restored to the Union. The Senate had already approved the amendment a year earlier, but it took the president's proactive measures - such as including the amendment on the Republican Party platform in the next presidential elections - for the House to approve its passage. Lincoln's involvement is evident by the inclusion of his signature on the amendment itself. It's the only constitutional amendment to include a president's signature.

The 13th Amendment evolved through various phases, reflecting the time before, during, and immediately after the war. There were versions that maintained the boundary line set up by the Missouri Compromise that only prohibited slavery in the North, versions that said the legality of slavery was a state decision, and still others that limited the regulatory authority of Congress to the transportation of slaves across state borders. The common theme among all proposed amendments was that of compromise - Congress continued to skirt around the issue at hand, trying to salvage a Union spiraling its way toward a civil war promulgated, among other things, by the legality of slave labor.

Even after the legislative establishment of slavery's illegality, its presence in the United States was far from eliminated. Today, many high school textbooks briefly touch on the difficulties between the North and the South during the Reconstruction era. What is rarely discussed is the 13th Amendment's lack of immediate impact on the newly emancipated slaves. This fact is often overlooked when studying the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896, which undermined equal protection for African-Americans under Jim Crow laws and established a new form of institutionalized segregation.

One book that explores some of these forgotten decades of continued enslavement is Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name. Blackmon examines how African-Americans were "slaves in all but names" in prison chain gangs in coal and steel mines in the years after the Civil War and well into the 1920s. He explains that the lack of central authority following the emancipation of black slaves in the South resulted in "the capture and imprisonment of thousands of indigent citizens almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process....repeatedly the timing and scale of sites in arrests appears more attended to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor." Blackmon observes that "by 1900, the South's judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African-Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites."

This mindset shifted the American practice of slavery from being a generational investment in human chattel to one where individuals were seen as commodities. As accounts from around the world and even within the United States can attest, this is not a far cry from how millions are still exploited in forced labor today.

As we reflect back on the progress made in the past two centuries on slavery in the U.S., we must also remember the need to take strategic steps forward in the upcoming years. Some thoughts to take away from the efforts made in 1865 that can be applied today.

Sloppy, haphazard legislation does not help anyone in the long run: Reading the proposed slavery amendments presents all sorts of "what-if" scenarios; not only because of how different they were from the final draft, but because it is evident they were written in a state of unpredictability about the nation's future. Much of the current legislation in the United States, both federal and state, reflects this uncertainty about modern-day slavery. The result is well-intentioned bills that seek to provide remedies for exploited persons, but without subsequent financial backing. Many bills also don't account for all vulnerable populations, but predominantly focus on children in commercial sexual exploitation situations. While this is a real crime that needs to be addressed, it should not be at the expense of the grand majority of exploited workers who do not fall into that category.

The cry for immediate results must be done responsibly: Modern-day abolitionists want to see the eradication of slavery, but want it done in a manner that creates sustainable freedom. The 13th Amendment was passed with no follow-up as to how states might disintegrate a centuries-old pattern of servitude, and the result was the continued enslavement of people despite the new law. Passion should not be dictated by knee-jerk reactions but by a concentrated effort to make responsible decisions that address slavery at its source and decrease the vulnerability to exploitation of future generations.

This post has been updated to more directly reflect the points raised by Douglas Blackmon's book Slavery by Another Name.

Former Free the Slaves intern Sarah Davis is a graduate student in International Human Rights at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies.