The 13th Amendment refers to an amendment to the United States Constitution, which is the supreme law of the U.S. It is significant for abolishing and prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude in the country. Additionally, it was the first amendment to the Constitution since the country’s earliest years; the first 12 had been ratified within the first three decades of the country's existence.
In 1808, the U.S. outlawed the international slave trade, which resulted in an unfree labor system in the country that mostly comprised black Africans. Although this meant an end to importing slaves, slavery was still practiced within the U.S. As early as 1839, John Adams, who would go on to become president but was then a representative from Massachusetts, made a legislative proposal to ban domestic slavery, and theorized that a U.S. president could do so, if a civil war should break out, by activating his powers under the War Powers Clause of the Constitution. It was a theory that future president Abraham Lincoln would fulfill during the American Civil War with the Emancipation Proclamation executive order in 1863, which outlawed slavery in the rebelling Confederate states. This eventually led to a number of amendment drafts in Congress by 1864.
The 13th Amendment comprises two sections. The first one concerns the banning of slavery and involuntary servitude in the U.S., unless in cases of a punishment for a crime. The second section contains the enforcement language of the amendment, granting Congress the power to implement the law.
The Senate passed the 13th Amendment on 8 April 1864 with a 38-to-6 vote. The House of Representatives did so on 31 January 1865 with a vote of 119 to 56. By the end of the year, 30 states had ratified the amendment. Three more followed within the next five years. The last state to ratify the 13th Amendment was Mississippi, which it did on 16 March 1995, after initially rejecting it on 5 December 1865.
The 13th Amendment was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments, which were implemented to specifically reconstruct the former Confederacy and heal the country in the aftermath of the American Civil War. It could not, however, prevent the rise of the Black Codes, unofficial laws that sought to severely limit the basic human rights and civil liberties gained by blacks after the war. The 14th Amendment followed in 1868 to establish state-wide civil rights. The 15th Amendment, the last of the Reconstruction Amendments, extended voting rights to the freed slaves.