On this day (January 31) in 1865, a bill authorizing the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States and all areas subject to its jurisdiction.
Although many slaves had been declared free by President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation – a wartime measure – their post-war status was uncertain. On April 8, 1864, the Senate passed an amendment to abolish slavery. After one unsuccessful vote and extensive legislative maneuvering by the Lincoln administration, the House followed suit on January 31, 1865. The measure was swiftly ratified by nearly all Union states, and by a sufficient number of border and “reconstructed” Southern states to cause it to be adopted before the end of the year.
Though the Thirteenth Amendment formally abolished slavery throughout the United States, factors such as Black Codes, white supremacist violence, and selective enforcement of statutes continued to subject many black Americans to involuntary labor, particularly in the South.
The Thirteenth Amendment also enables Congress to pass laws against sex trafficking and other modern forms of slavery.
In the following 12-minute sequence from the 2012 motion picture Lincoln, the dramatic roll-call vote in the House of Representatives is depicted.
Watch for the following:
- As, for the first time, a large contingent of Negro citizens enters the gallery above the House chamber to witness the vote, Congressman Asa Vintner Litton stands and emotionally welcomes the visitors to “your House”.
- The anxiety exhibited by several Democratic representatives who – notwithstanding threats of violence should they break party ranks and vote in favor of the amendment – courageously arise and vote “aye”.
- Army units outside the Capitol – including General Ulysses S. Grant – monitoring, recording, and telegraphing the vote-by-vote proceedings to distant points.
- Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax adding his vote in favor of the Amendment, dismissing objections to this unusual action by stating, “this isn’t usual – this is history”.
- President Lincoln, awaiting word on the vote in his office, throwing open the window to hear the sound of church bells and cannon fire – signifying that the amendment abolishing slavery had finally been passed.
- Congressman Thaddeus Stevens hurrying home from the vote and, after removing his coat, presenting his Negro housekeeper with “a gift for you” — a signed copy of the just-passed Thirteenth Amendment.
- Lincoln, in his second inaugural address less than two months later, and only weeks before his death, asking whether the death and destruction wrought by the Civil War was divine retribution to the U.S. for allowing slavery, wondering if God might require that the war continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” and concluding that, ultimately, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (Psalm 19:9)
The existence of slavery in the United States was of deep concern to many Americans from the days of the nation’s founding. In 1832, early Mormon leaders were wrestling with this subject, when it was made known to them by divine revelation that the Southern States would attempt to secede from the Union, triggering civil war and launching an era of conflict that would bring about “the death and misery of many souls.” This revelation, received on Christmas Day 1832 by the Prophet Joseph Smith, is noted for the specificity of its details – that the rebellion would begin with South Carolina, and that the Southern Confederacy would eventually seek an alliance with Great Britain for aid in its secession – events that became history nearly 30 years later.
The revelation also makes a fascinating albeit elusive reference to slaves “rising up against their masters,” as seen in the accompanying graphic.
Joseph Smith’s remarkable “Prophecy on War” has been preserved as Section 87 of the Doctrine & Covenants, a scriptural volume of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.