With the (unfortunate) exception of prison labor, the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude everywhere in the United States of America.
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.
What many Americans don’t know is that this is actually our third 13th Amendment. The first 13th amendment, passed by Congress in 1810, revoked citizenship for any American accepting a foreign title of nobility. The second 13th amendment, passed by Congress in 1861, sought to protect the institution of slavery and make it permanent. The first and second 13th amendments’ ratification processes were disrupted by the War of 1812 and the Civil War, respectively.
The three 13th Amendments provide a lens through which one can view the philosophical evolution of the United States. They also remind us of how the chaos of a pattern of war has shaped that history.
The First 13th Amendment
The first 13th Amendment, also known as the “Titles of Nobility Amendment,” was approved by the 11th Congress in 1810 and may or may not have been ratified before the War of 1812. The Capitol was burnt in 1814 – including the White House and Library of Congress – and many documents were lost.
No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.
The amendment itself reads:
If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain, any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress, accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind whatever, from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States, and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them.
Whether or not the amendment was ratified continues to be a matter of debate; many states published it in their constitutions up through the 1860s. Here is a version from the Constitution of Maine published in 1825:
The idea is that an American who accepts a title of nobility from a foreign nation is in danger of falling under foreign influence. There is perhaps also the thought that the verneer of nobility creates an “UnAmerican” sway. The United States is, and always has been, a republic, not a monarchy. The U.S. republic was created and fought for in direct response to what colonists viewed as intolerable abuses by a monarchy.
In his 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, founding father Thomas Paine wrote:
Dignities and high sounding names have different effects on different beholders. The lustre of the Star and the title of My Lord, over-awe the superstitious vulgar, and forbid them to inquire into the character of the possessor: Nay more, they are, as it were, bewitched to admire in the great, the vices they would honestly condemn in themselves. This sacrifice of common sense is the certain badge which distinguishes slavery from freedom; for when men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.
Assuming this 13th amendment was never fully ratified, is considered to be dormant, meaning that if need be, it could potentially be ratified at a later date. Theoretically, this may be true of the second 13th amendment as well.
The Second 13th Amendment
Supported by President Lincoln and passed by Congress, the Second 13th Amendment is also known as the “Corwin Amendment.” It was intended to placate southern states by making the institution of slavery permanent. It reads:
No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.
The fact that this “permanent slavery” amendment was supported by President Lincoln and won 2/3 support of the House and Senate ought to give one pause. Would would its ratification have meant for our country?
Could it ever be right – or Constitutional – to declare any Constitutional amendment unamendable?
The Third 13th Amendment
Adapted at the end of our Civil War, the third and final 13th Amendment obviously didn’t create a fairy-tale “happily ever after” ending – the struggle for equal rights continues today – but it pointed us in the direction that I believe most of our original founding fathers and mothers intended, even if they couldn’t find that will within them to follow through in the contentious revolutionary era.
Deep down, the founding fathers had to know all along that the institution of slavery was not compatible their foundations of freedom, common sense, and opportunity. Nonetheless, slavery was written into our original Constitution, economy, and culture. It may have been seen as a “necessary evil.” Even George Mason, father of our Bill of Rights, kept slaves.
Slavery was phased out in the northern colonies over the first half of the 19th century, but remained deeply entrenched in the south. The horror of keeping humans in a state of permanent bondage was excused because slavery was seen as a critical component of the economy. (Whether slavery made economic sense in the long run continues to be an issue of debate.) In the end, slavery was only abolished after years of effort culminated in a fierce, bloody, painful war. Sadly, once the abolition of slavery was committed to the text of our founding document, not enough effort was put into post-war restoration efforts, causing existing inequalities to morph into the institutionalized segregation and system of disempowerment called Jim Crow.
Those who truly believe in equality for all have been forced to continue to fight against the long legacy of slavery, and the ways it tends to pop up again and again in the form of exploitive labor (including prison labor), denial of opportunity, denial of voting rights, and human trafficking. In a global economy, corporations and consumers must also take special care not to exploit slave labor abroad.
Civil rights activists continue efforts to seek those unalienable rights promised in our founding documents. if we could truly respect the constitutional and human rights of all, then perhaps our country could truly become the shining example of freedom and opportunity that we so often imagine ourselves to be.
The 13th Amendment signifies the existence of that possibility.