Home / General / This Day in Labor History: December 6, 1865

This Day in Labor History: December 6, 1865


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.


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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  • ajay

    Mississippi ratified the 13th Amendment in 1995.

    Good lord. Were there previous efforts that failed?

    • It looks like once, which is, of course, shameful, but not exactly a surprise at the time:

      Mississippi ratified the amendment in 1995, but because the state never officially notified the US Archivist, the ratification is not official.

      This amendment was specifically rejected by Delaware on Feb 8, 1865; by Kentucky on Feb 24, 1865; by New Jersey on Mar 16, 1865; and by Mississippi on Dec 4, 1865. Florida reaffirmed its ratification on Jun 9, 1868.

    • I’ve been trying to find information on this issue. It looks like originally, slave-owners were angry that they wouldn’t be compensated for the loss of their slaves, so they didn’t sign the national amendment, however the state passed their own ban on slavery.

      It appears that a Texas legislature clerk found the error and began pushing to rectify it. Mississippi put it to a vote and finally signed though as mark f says, the state never officially notified the US Archivist. It’s been nearly 3 years since that website has been updated, so that may be changed, but I doubt it.

  • Scott de B.

    It’s a myth that Lincoln’s reelection was a ‘close run thing’, or that the capture of Atlanta was central to the outcome. Lincoln himself was pessimistic about his chances at times, but that is no more dispositive than Mitt Romney’s optimism. Lincoln won handily and there is no evidence that public opinion swung dramatically in the two months before the vote.

    • At least according to Eric Foner, Lincoln himself believed right before the election that he would win by 3 electoral votes.

      • The Dark Avenger

        Lincoln himself was pessimistic about his chances at times,

        People don’t remember how pessimistic he was:

        Sharing this fear, Lincoln wrote and signed a pledge that, if he should lose the election, he would still defeat the Confederacy before turning over the White House:[209]

        This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterward.[210]

        Lincoln was feeling the wind at his back close to the election, this letter was written mere days before it took place:

        Executive Mansion,
        Washington, October 31st, 1864

        Reverend & Dear Sir:

        It is with feelings of cordial gratification, that I acknowledge the reception of your communication of the 20th of October, covering the Resolutions of the Central German Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, adopted at their recent session.

        I have not been unprepared for this definite and unequivocal statement of the continued loyalty and devotion of the Church you represent, to the free institutions of the country of your adoption.

        The conduct of your people since the outbreak of this desolating rebellion, has been the best proof of the sincerity of your present professions.

        I trust it is not too early for us to rejoice together over the promise of the speedy removal of that blot upon our civilization, always heretofore a standing
        menace to our peace and liberties, whose destruction, so long desired by all friends of impartial freedom, has at last been rendered possible by the crimes of its own reckless friends.

    • UserGoogol

      Perhaps, but it was still in “serious doubt.” Without modern opinion polling, it would have been rather difficult for people to know that opinion had shifted in favor of the President, so the election would have been fraught with uncertainty even if the facts on the ground were quite comfortable.

  • DrDick

    A great day for labor in America. Sadly, many conservatives today find this an egregious usurpation of employers’ rights and would like to repeal it.

  • [African-Americans in slave states] 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.

    A declaration that happened in a very ad-hoc manner.

  • Argive

    It’s important to remember that while ending slavery as it had been practiced before the Civil War was a huge accomplishment, the 13th Amendment still contained a loophole that allowed Southerners (and Northerners, for that matter) to practice convict leasing, which was awfully similar to (and arguably worse than) slavery for the poor folks caught up in it.

    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.” Convicts were thus treated much like slaves, and the whole postwar prison system in the South was basically a bunch of labor camps set up like plantations. And we’re not talking about people convicted of serious crimes; in Slavery By Another Name, Doug Blackmon looks at cases of black men arrested because some white man accused them of welshing on debts that the white guy in question made up out of whole cloth. It’s honestly surprising how vital convict leasing was for the Southern economy after the Civil War.

    • Murc

      Let’s not forget the use of vagrancy laws used to essentially enforce a kind of serfdom.

      • Argive

        Yes, I believe that “being black while out in public with no money” was grounds for conviction on vagrancy charges. And of course, “being black while out in public with money” could get you charged with theft, or failure to repay a debt.

    • Just Dropping By

      I’m curious as to how convict leasing was “arguably worse than” chattel slavery. Convict leasing was very bad, but the majority of victims weren’t held captive for their entire lives. (And that’s without even considering the multigenerational nature of slavery or that slavery affected a significantly greater percentage of the black population.)

      • For an individual it could be. After all, a slave owner has economic incentives to keep the slaves alive and healthy enough to work. A person renting convict labor could, and sometimes did, simply work people to death.

        • It was not just leasing that could seriously shorten a convict’s life. Conditions at Angola, Parchman and other southern prisons were pretty wretched. Forced labor in prisons and chain gangs is at most only a relative improvement from chattel slavery, not the complete elimination of unfree labor. Especially considering how the local law enforcement and judicial systems of the Jim Crow South tended to treat Blacks.

        • Argive

          Pretty much. There’s a quote from a Mississippi businessman: “These convicts, we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.”

          Also, convict labor gave industry the perfect union-busting tool. Your free workers want to strike? No big deal. Just threaten to lease some convicts and put them to work. After all, they’ll work all day and night for a fraction of the cost and can’t quit, no matter how miserable or dangerous the work may be.

    • Anonymous

      The real John Henry, for one:
      “Using census data, penitentiary reports, and railroad company reports, [Scott Reynolds] Nelson reveals how John Henry, victimized by Virginia’s notorious Black Codes, was shipped to the infamous Richmond Penitentiary to become prisoner number 497, and was forced to labor on the mile-long Lewis Tunnel for the C&O railroad.”
      Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend

  • Bitter Scribe

    The North won the war and the South won the peace. I wonder sometimes if it was all really worth it.

    • Nathanael

      The South attempted, before the war, to expand slavery to the whole of the West and the whole of the North. They were hell-bent on expansion. That was what the war was about.

      The South did not manage to export the Black Codes to most of the North and West (though they did get what amounts to Black Codes in Indiana).

      Accordingly this was a success. The expansionism of the slaveowners was curtailed.

  • James McPherson:

    This thinking began to find its way into Lincoln’s own rhetoric. Lincoln first tried to appeal to the border states to support a plan of gradual emancipation, telling them that they can’t be blind to the signs of the times. But at a meeting with border state congressmen on July 12, the majority again turned Lincoln down. The very next day Lincoln tells Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that he plans to issue a proclamation of emancipation.

    Nine days later Lincoln told his full Cabinet that he intended to issue an emancipation proclamation. Only Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair opposed the measure. Blair feared that Democrats would use the unpopularity of such a measure to gain control of Congress in the 1862 elections, which is precisely what they attempted to do.

    Seward supported it, but advised Lincoln to wait for some success on the battlefield so it wouldn’t appear to be a desperation measure—in his words, “our last shriek on the retreat.” This discussion came soon after the Seven Days Battles, in which Confederate General Robert E. Lee maneuvered McClellan and the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond…


  • JM: The late summer of 1864 is another turning point in the war. The terrible death toll in Grant’s Overland Campaign had brought on a war weariness in the North. The Democrats adopted a platform that called for a cease-fire. This would have been, of course, tantamount to a Confederate victory and would have repudiated the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Lincoln was also worried about the Supreme Court. If the Emancipation Proclamation came before the court, with his claims of wartime powers no longer operative, would they have upheld it? So Lincoln pledged himself to a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. This becomes the 13th Amendment in 1865.– James McPherson


  • Bruce Vail

    Wouldn’t the date of the Emancipation Proclamation be a more appropriate marker for the end of the slavery at “This Day in Labor History”?

    As you point out, the work of the Union Army, and the slaves themselves, had destroyed the institution of slavery well before Dec. 6, 1865.

    (This same point rankled at me a little bit while viewing Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” In an effort to achieve dramatic effect, the movie seems to suggest that there was some danger in early 1865 that the war would end but that slavery might be preserved. In my reading of history, it was way too late to save slavery at that time. Yes, there were legal formalities to be attended to, but is inconceivable that the war would end to total defeat for the Confederacy and slavery would somehow be restored.)

    • MacCheerful

      If the war had ended earlier, without the 13th Amendment, it was entirely plausible that slavery would have continued, in a reduced form for some period. The Emancipation Proclamation was a war time measure. Many slave, particularly in remote locations like Texas, had not managed to escape. Politicians in places like Kentucky, some who supported the Union and therefor would not be occupied by federal troops, supported slavery to the bitter end.

      Given the racism of the time, if slavery was not ended completely by Constitution, there would always be lawyers able to argue it back into place and white populations who would support the effort.

      • Bruce Vail

        That’s right. A constitutional amendment to abolish slavery was essential to restoring the Constitution as the governing document of a re-united USA.

        It’s horrifying to think what a mess the Supreme Court would have made if they had had any authority to establish the post-war legal structure.

  • CJColucci

    I’ve sometimes wondered if the 13th Amendment emancipated not only the slaves, but the Commerce Clause. Under the modern (or at least pre-Obamacare) view of the Commerce Clause, is there any doubt that the federal government could abolish slavery, if perhaps by jumping throught hoops like banning the production or sale of goods or services involving slave labor? Lincoln thought he had no Constitutional power to abolish slavery, in peacetime, where it already existed, and he was right given then-current understandings. Anyone proposing the modern understanding of the Commerce Clause would have been lynched if he were found in a slave state. And rightkly so, from the point of view of slaveowners. I suspect that the end of slavery allowed the modern understanding to develop once there was no longer a peculiar institution to be threatened by it.

  • witless chum

    Rick Snyder is apparently willing to go to war with every union in Michigan. Legislation banning union shops is getting introduced and he plans to sign it, after saying for a long time that it was “not on his agenda.”

    The state may well be too effectively gerrymandered to do anything about it.

  • cpinva

    the employer could also cite religous support for it:

    When the employer can base this slavery on difference and then naturalize that through racism,

    it tends to be conveniently forgotten that the southern baptist church came into existence, prior to the war, solely for the purpose of providing a religious basis, to legitimize slavery. it was this that gave rise to the claim that slavery was “supported” by the bible, and thus a good, “christian” practice.

    of course, the new testament does no such thing, but that never stopped southern baptist preachers, and their (slave owning) flocks, from claiming it did. this has evolved into today’s southern baptist church, supporting racism and the efforts to turn back the clock on women’s rights. really, just a logical progression.

    • the southern baptist church came into existence, prior to the war, solely for the purpose of providing a religious basis, to legitimize slavery. it was this that gave rise to the claim that slavery was “supported” by the bible, and thus a good, “christian” practice.

      +1 for getting the order of events right.

      Slavery, including in North America, predated all of these religious, philosophical, and scientific justifications that one finds so commonly in the 18th and 19th century. Prior to the Enlightenment, there needed to be no justification, since it was universally accepted that some people would be owned by others.

      • ajay

        it was this that gave rise to the claim that slavery was “supported” by the bible, and thus a good, “christian” practice.
        of course, the new testament does no such thing

        That is extremely debateable. At no point does the New Testament specifically say “It is OK to own slaves”. (Any more than it says “It is OK to own a horse” or “it is OK to own a cooking pot”).

        But it acknowledges the existence of slaves and advises their owners to treat them well and not to threaten them.

        Given how much time it spends on other matters (like divorce!) you’d think that “Slavery bad” might have made it into the Sermon on the Mount. It didn’t.

        That doesn’t make slavery OK, of course. It makes the Bible wrong.

  • CaptBackslap

    On this exact day in labor history, a Michigan governor released this video.

    I had thought better of him. :(

  • Thom

    Erik, thanks for this excellent post.

  • kmeyer57

    We never really ended slavery. First we built company towns, then when that became untenable, we just exported it. Now we never have to look a slave in the eye.

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  • Brett

    Most politicians in the North agreed that their proper place was laboring on plantations under white supervision.

    And that’s ultimately what did it in, I think. Northerners may have been fine with Free Labor up north and family farms in the North and West, but that was not for black folks in their opinion – they weren’t willing to do large-scale land reform to end the plantation system in the south in order to create a system of family farms for all black and white folks down there, something that would have decisively broken the power of the plantation elite and given southern whites as well as blacks a strong vested interest in the new order.

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