It was 150 years ago, December 18, 1865, that the United States Secretary of State, William Seward, announced that the 13th Amendment had been ratified and had “become valid, to all intents and purposes, as part of the Constitution of the United States.” Officially and constitutionally, slavery in the United States was dead.
The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress January 31, 1865, and was ratified by the states at December 6, 1865. The Amendment states:
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.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Some people ask, why was the 13th Amendment needed, given that Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation (the “EP”)? For one thing, the Proclamation did not abolish slavery. Emancipation and abolition are not the same thing. The EP only applied to a set of people who were enslaved at a point in time, namely, January 1, 1863. Thus, there was nothing to legally prevent children who were born after the EP from being enslaved. The EP forestalled the possibility of the enslavement of future generations.
Additionally, slavery was still legal in Delaware and Kentucky. The EP did not apply to Union slave states; it was only effective for states that were in rebellion, i.e., the Confederate States. The Union slave states of Maryland and Missouri, for example, were exempted from the EP, but they passed laws/amendments in their states which abolished slavery before the end of the Civil War. Delaware and Kentucky, two other Union slave states, did not vote to ratify the 13th Amendment; however, the Amendment did have the necessary votes for ratification, and so slavery ended in those two states.
There was also the possibility that the Emancipation Proclamation would face legal challenges after the end of the war. The 13th Amendment made the matter of the legality and constitutionality of the EP moot.