On December 6, 1865, with Georgia’s ratification of the 13th Amendment, slavery throughout the United States became illegal.
Just a few years earlier, in 1861, Ohio Representative Thomas Corwin proposed—and both Houses of Congress passed—a constitutional amendment that would have done the exact opposite.
Corwin’s amendment read, “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”
This would have been the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Before it could be ratified, however, 11 Southern states seceded to form the Confederacy.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, was a step toward abolishing slavery. But it didn’t apply to the loyal border states, and it exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under control of the Union Army.
On January 31, 1865, Congress passed another slavery-related amendment.
This one read, “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.”
To make it part of the Constitution, three-fourths of all the states—including those still in rebellion—had to ratify the amendment.
Within a month, 18 of the 27 needed states quickly ratified the amendment, although after the Lincoln’s assassination in April the ratification process stalled.
To force the issue, President Andrew Johnson instituted a requirement that any state that wanted readmission to the union first needed to outlaw slavery. This prompted enough states to act, and on December 6, 1865, Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the amendment.
On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward certified the amendment, proclaiming the 13th Amendment had been adopted as part of the U.S. Constitution as of December 6, 1865.
In celebration of the anniversary of the enactment of the 13th Amendment, California’s Certificate of Ratification will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from December 3, 2015, through January 6, 2016.
Fun Fact: Both President James Buchanan and President Abraham Lincoln signed their respective joint resolutions proposing the amendments. Their signatures, however, were unnecessary as the Supreme Court had ruled in Hollingsworth v. Virginia (1798) that the President has no formal role in the constitutional amendment process.