Sunday, December 6, 2015

Happy Birthday to the 13th Amendment!

Dreamed of Abolition


Made it Happen

Today is the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery and indentured servitude.  The Senate passed the Amendment on April 8, 1864, and the House of Representatives followed suit on January 31, 1865 after determined lobbying by President Lincoln and his administration.   Georgia ratified the Amendment on December 6, 1865, thereby providing the requisite three fourths of the states necessary to amend the Constitution.

Here is the text of the Amendment, in its entirety. 

Section 1

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Amendment implemented the abolitionist vision that George Wythe and St. George Tucker, both pictured above, had articulated more than half a century earlier.    Wythe, of course, occupied the Chair of Law and Police at William and Mary beginning in 1779 and was thus the nation's first law professor.  Wythe endorsed abolition and freed his own slaves.  As a judge on Virginia's Chancery Court, he announced in Hudgins v. Wright (1806) that the Virginia Declaration of Rights provided that all persons are free, regardless of race.    Tucker, one of Wythe's students, succeeded his teacher as William and Mary's second Chair of Law and Police in 1790 and echoed Wythe opposition to human bondage.  In 1796, Tucker authored a 116 page pamphlet addressed to the state legislature and entitled "A Dissertation on Slavery, With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, in the State of Virginia."  

Unfortunately the Virginia Legislature did not embrace Tucker's proposal, and an appellate court reversed Wythe's decision in Hudgins.  Instead, and tragically, it took the Civil War to end slavery.  During that war, Abraham Lincoln explained what was at stake in an April, 1864 speech.

"The World has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We call declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.  With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor.  Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name --- liberty.  And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names --- liberty and tyranny."

Lincoln, of course, embraced the first definition, namely that "liberty" includes the right of each person to do as he or she pleases with himself or herself and with the product of his or her labor.  The Thirteenth Amendment finally made this definition a reality, at least as a matter of Constitutional Law, for all Americans.  If Virginia and the rest of the Nation had listened to Tucker and/or Wythe in 1796, 1806 or some time in between, America could have extended the blessings of liberty to all persons much sooner, eradiacted the evil of human bondage and avoided the cataclysm of civil war.