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Wayne Hsieh "13th Amendment of the United States Constitution" Flickr

The Thirteenth Amendment: History, Anniversary, and Relevance

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the required number of states on December 6th, 1865. Last week, President Obama celebrated the anniversary with a speech on modern slavery and human trafficking. Read the article to find out more!

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “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.” The amendment was passed after the United States had fought a bloody civil war between territories that had supported the institution of slavery and the territories that had opposed the institution of slavery. Several years earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had freed all of the slaves in the confederate (rebel) territories by the emancipation proclamation, but it was the 13th amendment which finally abolished the buying and selling of another human being as a legal practice.

But wait! Slavery didn’t end at that time, did it? No, it unfortunately did not. As we know today, modern forms of enslavement persist in contemporary society. These include forced prostitution, child labor, forced labor, forced marriage, and bonded labor. This site is dedicated to people who fight against the practices of modern slavery. But the 13th amendment is still an incredibly important document, and a milestone in the history of the United States. From the mid-1800s until the late 1900s, nations around the world would follow suit by abolishing chattel forms of slavery.

What is chattel slavery?

Chattel slavery is a term that we use to denote the legal ownership of another human being. In the United States, chattel slavery was fueled by the transatlantic slave trade. Many “new world” countries, including the Caribbean islands and North America, were rich in natural resources. Once Europeans became involved in harvesting those natural resources, they needed cheap labor. The slave trade, already in existence, provided the labor they needed. Large populations of slaves were taken captive in Africa, and then sent to the Americas to work on sugar plantations, tobacco farms, and in other agricultural industries.

What is unique about chattel slavery is that it was protected under the color of the law. This means that an enslaved person who ran away was actually breaking the law—they were a criminal. People could be owned, just like houses, cars, or cattle. We now consider this practice barbaric, and it is. But it differs from modern forms of enslavement in one particular way: modern forms of enslavement are illegal. They may be tolerated, they may be a product of corrupt governments and a low rule of law, but they are illegal. Mauritania became the last country in the world to outlaw chattel slavery in 1981.

Why is it important to celebrate the 13th Amendment if slavery still exists?

The thirteenth amendment is a step on the journey to ending enslavement. It was only part of the portrait. The amendment didn’t change men’s hearts, and it didn’t change one man’s ability to enslave another man (or woman). But it helped to change our society, and it changed our practices. That is exactly what we are trying to do as we address modern slavery and human trafficking. The next part of the portrait didn’t emerge until 135 years had passed, when the TVPA and the Palermo Protocol were written into domestic and international law, respectively. But look at the progress we have made in just fifteen years! Let’s trace our history, as abolitionists, to the history of those who came before us. This includes the incredible men and women who fought to end chattel slavery, in the United States and in countries around the world.

Take some time and browse around our profiles today. Read about Susan Ople, who is helping migrant workers from the Philippines avoid schemes meant to trap and exploit their labor. Read about Pierre Tami (or read his blog about social entrepreneurship) who is starting businesses intended to help vulnerable populations avoid situations of vulnerability. Tek Narayan Kunwar, a judge, is using the law to combat human trafficking in Nepal. This site is dedicated to Trafficking in Persons Heroes. In the quote below, President Obama says that the issue of chattel slavery today seems so simple and so obvious. Let us hope that one day a president can say the same about the issue of human trafficking. It was so simple, so obvious, and we were able to end it. If that happens, it will be a direct result of the efforts of the incredible men and women honored on TIPHeroes.org.

“Today, the issue of chattel slavery seems so simple, so obvious. It is wrong in every sense. Stealing men, women and children from their homelands, tearing husbands from wife, parent from child, stripped and sold to the highest bidder, shackled in chains and bloodied with the whip. It is antithetical not only to our conception of human rights and dignity but to our conception of ourselves: a people founded on the premise that all are created equal.”