Intellectually, I understand the concept of slavery and have studied its various forms as it has occurred throughout history. It’s still difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of actually owning another human being.
The fact that emancipation of human beings from slavery was controversial seems shocking to those of us who live in the contemporary world. How could a nation that was conceived under the ideals of human rights and freedom even allow such a horrible institution as slavery to legally exist within its borders?
Legally instituted slavery is the ultimate absence of freedom. Even if you somehow escaped from your owner, law enforcement and the U.S. military were obliged to return you to that owner. This is a fate worse than that of many inmates in prisons. At least, prisoners are released after serving their alloted time. What must it feel like to be condemned to a life sentence of hard labor even though you did not commit a crime?
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which held that “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Although the Proclamation was a welcome, bold step, it only had the force of a resolution. The President understood that the Emancipation Proclamation had to be followed up with the force of a Constitutional Amendment to guarantee that slavery could no longer exist within the United States.
It wasn’t until the last months of the American Civil War, that the full abolition of slavery was legally addressed. After much heated debate, the 13th Amendment, which legally abolished slavery in the U.S. passed the Senate on April 8, 1864. After more debate, it finally passed in the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865. President Lincoln approved and signed the Joint Resolution of Congress the next day, February 1st. It was then sent along for consideration to the state legislatures for ratification.
Here is the full text of the Amendment:
“Section 1. 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.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Ratification of the 13th Amendment came relatively fast, only eight months after the end of the Civil War. When Georgia approved ratification on December 6, 1865, slavery legally ceased to exist in the United States.
It was the passage and signing of the Amendment proposal on February 1st that is widely celebrated in the U.S. as Freedom Day.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes President Lyndon Johnson. “Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.”