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This Day in Labor History: December 6, 1865

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On December 6, 1865, the legislature of Georgia ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery. Arguably, the single most important event in the history of American labor, the official end to slavery closed a chapter in the nation’s race-based labor system, a system that still remains in important forms to the present.

I hardly need to go into great detail on the history of slavery and I’d rather leave the details of specific events to individual posts in this series (see here, here, and here for other slavery posts). But let us the review the general outlines of what slavery meant–the right of the employer to do whatever they want with labor. Kill it. Rape it. Impregnate it and own the offspring. Beat it. Gamble it away. Dehumanize it. Whatever. It’s all open game when labor becomes property. When the employer can base this slavery on difference and then naturalize that through racism, even better because it creates solidarity between those who don’t share that difference, regardless of whether they have personal investments in human capital. As I’ve said in the past about the southern argument that lots of Civil War soldiers didn’t own slaves–just because they didn’t own slaves doesn’t mean they didn’t want to own slaves.

We are in a moment when the connection between Abraham Lincoln and the 13th Amendment are strong in the public mind because of the Spielberg film, which I have yet to see. There’s no question that Lincoln played a key role in it passing Congress, something he was only able to do of course because the majority of the opposition had seceded from the nation and were no longer part of Congress. But slaves effectively ended the institution themselves during the war. African-Americans, north and south, free and slave, knew what the war meant from the moment it started. Slaves poured out of Maryland into newly emancipated Washington, D.C., knowing that a Union victory would mean the effective end of the institution. They fled to Union lines at every opportunity, well before Lincoln would allow the military to free them. They volunteered for the Union Army by the tens of thousands, facing the institutionalized racism of that institution in order to do whatever they could to free their families and comrades in the South, whether by holding a gun or digging a latrine. Of course none of this was possible without the U.S. government declaring slavery no longer the black labor policy of the nation. Credit for the end of slavery goes to many people, including many long forgotten African-Americans who may have nothing but walked away at the first opportunity.

African-Americans leaving the plantations

The 13th Amendment was generated out of Congressional Republicans and abolitionists who saw changing the Constitution as a better way of ending slavery through the United States, as presently constituted, than Abraham Lincoln’s preferred method of trying to convince the border states to do so voluntarily. Lincoln’s methods had proven ineffective as the border states flat refused, even Delaware which barely even had any slaves by 1864. Abolitionists began a petition drive for a constitutional amendment in 1863. In February 1864, two black men delivered a petition on the Senate floor to Charles Sumner with over 100,000 signatures; by mid-1864, over 400,000 Americans had signed a petition.

Despite urging from Congress, Lincoln refused to make any recommendation for an constitutional amendment in his 1864 State of the Union Address. Congress took it up anyway. The 13th Amendment’s language was written by Lyman Trumbull in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Somewhat amusingly, Sumner wanted to base the language around the French Declaration of the Rights of Man but that was seen as too Frenchy and was rejected. The amendment was presented to Congress on February 10, 1864. At first it seemed that it might get Democratic support but the upcoming 1864 elections got in the way and Democratic support disappeared in the face of the party’s white supremacist platform for George McClellan over Lincoln. The amendment passed the Senate on April 8, but fell 13 votes short in the House.

McClellan campaign poster, 1864

After Lincoln’s reelection (something in serious doubt until just before the election), the first order of business for Congress was to take up the 13th Amendment. Republicans undertook a full-fledged effort to get the votes with William Seward promising rich patronage to Democrats for voted for it. Only 2 Democrats who were going to serve in the next Congress had the courage to vote yes, but 14 others, who had either lost or chosen not to run for reelection, also voted yes and the 13th Amendment squeaked through Congress in January 1865.

At this point, the amendment went to the states for ratification. It quickly moved through the North, only failing in the 3 states that voted for McClellan–Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey. The three Reconstruction governments established under Lincoln–Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana, passed it as well. A rump legislature in Virginia joined them. The process then slowed, but under tremendous pressure, enough ex-Confederate states passed it that on December 6, Georgia became the tipping point state and the 13th Amendment was ratified.

It is somewhat ironic of course that a slave state like Georgia would be the final vote to encode the end of slavery in the Constitution. But by late 1865, the institution was dead anyway. Andrew Johnson was seeking to speed the process of Reconstruction up in order to ensure that white supremacy ruled the nation. The easiest way to do that was to get the ex-Confederates to pass the 13th Amendment and renounce secession. That plus nothing was enough for Johnson, although of course it would not be enough for the Republicans. And as the battles over Reconstruction would demonstrate, the battle over control of black labor was far from over as states like Georgia were implementing the Black Codes at the same time they ratified the fait accompli of slavery’s ending. That southern whites would by and large win this battle over massive black resistance in the late nineteenth century demonstrates the tenuousness of the nation’s commitment to free labor for people of color, even in the face of fighting a civil war over the issue.

Freedom

Finally, it’s important to see the 13th Amendment not as an end, but as part of the larger national debate of what to do with 4 million freed black laborers. Was simply ending slavery enough? Did they need to be part of the larger political body? Most politicians in the North agreed that their proper place was laboring on plantations under white supervision. This assumption would guide much of the coming Reconstruction policy, something I will explore in further detail in the future.

Mississippi ratified the 13th Amendment in 1995.

This is the 46th post in this series. The other posts are archived here.

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