Did Lincoln Really Free the Slaves?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Several versions of the bill that abolished slavery were written before he signed the 13th Amendment as we know it today.

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As Lincoln commented when the band came playing at the White House on the day he signed it on Feb. 1, 1865, the 13th Amendment went well beyond the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Not only did it erase any lingering doubt that abolition would pass constitutional muster (at the time, there was still a worry that the Supreme Court could strike down the Emancipation Proclamation as an abuse of executive power). The amendment was to reach all of the United States—not just the Confederacy—across generations, whereas the more modest Emancipation Proclamation, in Lincoln’s telling, had been limited by perceptions “that it only aided those [slaves] who came into [Union] lines and that it was inoperative as to those who did not give themselves up, or that it would have no effect upon the children of the slaves born hereafter.” In other words, contrary to what we were taught in school, it was the 13th Amendment that finally put an end to the institution of slavery in the United States and not the Emancipation Proclamation.

Unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, the words of the 13th Amendment were both sweeping and spare: “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.” Embracing it, Lincoln told those gathered outside the White House, “this amendment is a king’s cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up.” And, according to the reporter on the scene for the New York Tribune, Lincoln “repeat[ed] that it was the fitting if not indispensable adjunct to the consummation of the great game we are playing. He could not but congratulate himself, the country and the whole world upon this great moral victory.”

The Crittenden Compromise

What may be remarkable to some—and proof of the revolutionary course the Civil War had taken as it dragged on—is the fact that when the war began, the same President Lincoln had been ready to sign an altogether different version of the 13th Amendment, a first draft, if you will. (Remember, in our Constitution, we only see numbers assigned to the versions that were successfully ratified, not those that died somewhere between the drafting and debating, the House and Senate and the various states. They all had numbers, too, until they were superseded.)

The earlier versions of what would have become the 13th Amendment had little to do with the one that was finally adopted. Though each addressed the issue of American slavery, they came about at different times, in different Congresses and under starkly different circumstances. The first was debated during the “secession winter” of 1860-1861, those four dreary, tumultuous and seemingly interminable months between Abraham Lincoln’s election on Nov. 6, 1860, and his inauguration on March 4, 1861. In that time, seven states seceded, beginning with South Carolina on Dec. 20 (Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas followed). In Washington, D.C., members of Congress scrambled to find any shred of compromise in what appeared to be an uncompromising age.

While we have our various “gangs of six and eight” in Congress today, the secession winter Senate had its so-called “Committee of Thirteen,” organized on Dec. 18, 1860 (just two days before South Carolina departed the union), with Democratic President James Buchanan still wringing his hands in the White House. What came to be known as “the Crittenden Compromise” (for the committee member behind it, Sen. John Crittenden of Kentucky) emerged in short order. Really, it was a package of proposals—a “grand bargain,” you might say—consisting of six constitutional amendments and four congressional regulations, which aimed to revive and render permanent the old geographical boundary between free and slave territories in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, except this time, that line would extend all the way to the Pacific Ocean, defying Lincoln’s biblical maxim, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

The Crittenden Compromise, in attempting to stave off further state defections, hung itself on the belief that the house could stand. It would be too much to quote the proposed amendments in full, but here are the relevant passages:

“ARTICLE I. In all the territory of the United States now held, or hereafter acquired, situated north of latitude 36° 30′, slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, is prohibited while such territory shall remain under territorial government. In all the territory south of said line of latitude, slavery of the African race is hereby recognized as existing, and shall not be interfered with by Congress, but shall be protected as property by all the departments of the territorial government during its continuance …

“ARTICLE II. Congress shall have no power to abolish slavery in places under its exclusive jurisdiction, and situate within the limits of States that permit the holding of slaves.

“ARTICLE III. Congress shall have no power to abolish slavery within the District of Columbia, so long as it exists in the adjoining States of Virginia and Maryland, or either, nor without the consent of the inhabitants, nor without just compensation first made to such owners of slaves as do not consent to such abolishment …