Tahlequah Daily Press

Features

May 27, 2014

Slavery abolished with 13th Amendment

TAHLEQUAH — During the decades preceding the Civil War, the U.S. Constitution was not tweaked through amendment by Congress and the states.

America’s document of supreme law went more than 60 years between passage of the 12th and 13th amendments, but the nation’s war between North and South brought a quick flurry of three adjustments known as the Reconstruction Amendments.

The initial amendment was the 13th, which reads:

“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.”

On Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation through his war powers. The measure declared all slaves free in the 10 rebellious states, but didn’t mention slavery in states that remained within the union. There were no takers when Lincoln issued the Proclamation for Amnesty and Reconstruction in December 1863. That decoration offered rebel states peaceful reunification with the U.S. if they abolished slavery.

“Lincoln realized the Emancipation Proclamation could be reversed or found invalid after the war,” said State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah. “After winning the election in 1864, he made passage of the 13th Amendment his main legislative priority.”

With the South absent from Congress, there was abundant sentiment to abolish slavery. Representatives James Mitchell Ashley of Ohio and James F. Wilson of Iowa introduced bills proposing an amendment, as did Sen. John Henderson of Missouri.

After clearing committee, the amendment easily passed the Senate 38-6, but failed to attain a supermajority during a first vote in the House of Representatives, 93-65. The vote largely followed party lines.

House Democrats were concerned the amendment infringed on a state issue, or that freeing millions of black Americans amounted to a revolution.

Republicans denounced slavery as barbaric. Both sides eventually softened, with some Democrats realizing any support for slavery was a political ashcan, and some Republicans assuring doubters that white Americans would retain their socioeconomic advantage.

House passage was narrowly achieved, 119-56 on Jan. 31, 1865.

Within a month of passage by Congress, 18 states - including Louisiana - approved the 13th Amendment. Despite its secession, the majority of Louisiana’s population was black, with 47 percent of the population in slavery and a large freedman community, resulting in many northern sympathizers.

Furthermore, much of the state was essentially pacified when Baton Rouge was abandoned on April 24, 1862, federal troops seized New Orleans on April 25 to establish control of the Mississippi River, and the cotton trade resumed. Confederate units such as the Army of Western Louisiana were usually outnumbered, and most attempts to disrupt Union control failed.

Arkansas approved the amendment on April 14, 1865, five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces at Appomattox Court House. South Carolina approved in November, and Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia all passed the amendment during the first week of December to give the amendment the requisite sanction of 27 states.

The 13th Amendment is straightforward and has little case history, because nobody has lobbied the courts for the incongruous “right” to own slaves.

There have been cases of people seeking redress against laws or arrangements that could be construed as slave-like, and the first precedents undermined federal capacity to uphold the 13th Amendment.

Enforcement legislation was passed in 1866 with the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed black citizens equal protection. But cases such as Bylew v. U.S. (1872), which precluded federal civil rights protections for murder victims, and Plessy v. Feguson, which upheld Jim Crow laws, undermined those protections.

Brown said most freedmen in the south were doing the same work as before emancipation. Though free, they had no land, no money, and were mostly without legal status or protection.

“Unfortunately, many southern states responded to the 13th Amendment by passing a number of laws known as Black Codes,” he said. “Since the 13th Amendment still permitted labor as punishment for convicted criminals, these laws were simply an effort to maintain a form of slavery by convicting blacks of all types of petty crimes, including vagrancy, obscene language, or even selling cotton after sunset.”

Dr. Daniel Savage, chair of the Department of Geography, Political Science and Sociology at Northeastern State University, said most freedmen were illiterate, and that only craftsmen had a shot at non-agricultural employment.

“Few blacks had the money to pay for land, so the sharecropping system began,” Savage said. “Under this system, landowners - in some cases, the same people who used to own the plantations - would rent out their land in exchange for money or crops.”

Penniless sharecroppers borrowed to buy seed, livestock, food and shelter, until the first crop came in.

“They usually had to borrow these things from the landowners,” Savage said. “They then had to pay the landowner a share of the crop. Rent, and the cost of goods, frequently exceeded what could be produced by the first year’s crop. So a sharecropper may end up in debt to the landowner after the first year. Each year, the amount owed might grow, so that sharecroppers were frequently indebted to the landowners for years after. Anyone attempting to run out on a debt could be arrested and made to work for free.”

Dr. John Yeutter, associate professor of accounting at NSU, pointed to a modern 13th Amendment case, McGarry v. Pallito.

Tried in 2012 in the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the case involved a plaintiff’s alleging he was forced to work for 25 cents an hour in an unsanitary laundry at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in Vermont while awaiting trial. Refusal meant being placed alone in “administrative segregation.”

The court based its dismissal entirely on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to claim legal injury under the 13th Amendment.

“So while we would hope that slavery doesn’t exist in the US, we find instead that our ‘justice’ system treats those who are presumed to be innocent as slaves,” Yeutter said.

While modern civil rights may be more far-reaching than those of the late 19th Century, many Americans argue that true protection for all people under the law is still not attained and must be pursued.

“Almost 150 years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, civil rights in the United States is an ongoing process,” Brown said. “We must continue to ensure our nation provides equal protection under the law and equality for all our citizens.”

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