Lincoln's Struggle With The Thirteenth Amendment

tags: slavery, Lincoln, Thirteenth Amendment

Dr. Samito practices law in Boston and teaches at Boston University's School of Law.

Abraham Lincoln made a pun in calling the Thirteenth Amendment “a King’s cure for all the evils.” By referencing King’s cure-all (evening primrose oil), prescribed by Civil War era doctors to treat various ailments, Lincoln acknowledged the multifaceted nature of emancipation and offered his hopeful opinion that the amendment would remedy the assorted problems slavery caused.

A hundred fifty years after its ratification in December 1865, Americans often ignore this amendment because it seems obvious and, at first glance, irrelevant.

But amending the Constitution broke with Lincoln’s long-held belief that it should not be altered because the work of its Framers could not be improved. Moreover, well into his presidency, Lincoln felt emancipation could take place only on the state level and that it should be gradual so as to ease white and black Americans toward slavery’s end.

As the war went on, however, Lincoln came to see constitutional amendment as the way to resolve the tension between slavery’s existence and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln also recognized the amendment as a way to shield federalism from more radical proposals that threatened it. When his work to support state emancipation efforts gained traction in places such as Maryland, Lincoln knew that popular opinion had moved sufficiently. In 1864, Lincoln caused a nationwide abolition amendment to be placed in his re-election platform and he proclaimed his victory a mandate in its favor. Lincoln’s leadership helped shape public opinion and he maintained his fidelity–and that of the U.S.–to the form and substance of the Constitution. Lincoln worked within the Constitution even while altering it.

On one level, the amendment performed the obvious task of ending slavery. In the process, it created a stronger nation-state by eliminating the one issue that almost tore it apart. With the amendment, Lincoln now envisioned a country unified in free labor economics and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence at the core of its nationalism. Lincoln wanted an open field for economic advancement for anyone who worked for it and with the Thirteenth Amendment, protection for personal freedom and the fruits of one’s labor would apply to all Americans regardless of race or color. As he asserted on July 4, 1861, the Union cause involved maintaining a government “whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men…to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all-to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” ...

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