The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) to the Constitution of the United States is the amendment that freed slaves.

Amendment that Freed Slaves

The Republican approach was not only unconstitutional, but it was also contradictory. In 1865 Congress had accepted the Southern states’ ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the amendment that freed slaves. But in 1867, even though the Southern states had not changed in the interim, they were suddenly declared illegal when they dared to reject the Fourteenth Amendment. Simple consistency would require Congress to accept both decisions by the Southern states (that is, the decision to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment and the decision to reject the Fourteenth) or to reject both decisions. But consistency was not a conspicuous virtue of Reconstruction.


Moreover, there is clear evidence that the Fourteenth Amendment was unlawfully ratified. On the one hand, Congress declared ten of the eleven former Confederate states to be without legal governments, and therefore not entitled to representation. On the other, Congress demanded that these states, which were not entitled to the privileges of statehood (including the right to send representatives and senators to Washington), ratify an amendment to the Constitution in order to resume their proper place in the Union. If a state truly lacks a legal government, it would indeed be prohibited from enjoying representation in the U.S. Congress—but, logically, it would also be excluded from the process of amending the Constitution.

The Southern states eventually ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, but the ratification process was strewn with irregularities. In Tennessee, which had avoided Radical Reconstruction by ratifying the amendment the first time, opponents refused to be present for the vote so that a quorum would be prevented and ratification impossible. To overcome this difficulty, amendment supporters seized two Tennessee legislators and held them in an anteroom as the vote proceeded. In vain did the speaker attempt to proclaim the two men officially absent (they refused to answer the roll). The vote in favor of the amendment went ahead anyway.

Then there were the irregularities in Oregon. There the vote was taken on the amendment at a time when two Republicans’ seats in the legislature were being challenged on legal grounds. The two Republicans provided the thin margin by which the amendment passed. But they were eventually removed from the legislature in that same session when it was determined that they had been illegally elected. Their seats were given to Democrats. Not surprisingly, the legislature voted to rescind its ratification of the amendment. But this was not allowed to stand, and Oregon was counted as having ratified the amendment.

Oregon was not alone in its decision to rescind; New Jersey, too, changed its mind as it observed Radical Republican behavior. The New Jersey state resolution warned that the amendment had been “made vague for the purpose of facilitating encroachment on the lives, liberties, and property of the people.” New Jersey’s rescission was not allowed to stand either.

A great many other procedural irregularities could be cited with regard to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. The point, however, is clear. As Professor Forrest McDonald, a Jefferson Lecturer of the National Endowment for the Humanities, declared in his own study of the matter: “[T]he Fourteenth Amendment was never constitutionally ratified.”

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