This article has been written by Oishika Banerji of Amity Law School, Kolkata. This article discusses slavery in light of the Constitution of the United States, thereby analyzing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and its insights in present times. 

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


The term ‘slavery’ always stands in association with individual liberty. Confining individuals to satisfy the needs of the elite class is a poignant practice that has traveled with the human race and has been recognized as slavery. When it comes to the United States, slavery is a practice that has received a lot of discussion over a significant period of time. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in the US. This amendment stood as a milestone in the struggle for civil rights that began in the 18th century. It has left a lasting impact on US history, politics, and culture. Slavery in the US dates back to the 1600s, when it was first introduced by the Dutch to the American colonies. It was a form of labor used to exploit the African population and create economic benefits for the slaveholders. Initially, the US Constitution did not outlaw slavery. Instead, it allowed it to exist in the US. The Constitution also allowed for the expansion of slavery into newly acquired territories. This led to a sharp divide between the North and the South on the issue of slavery. The Southern states were heavily dependent on slave labor, and they saw slavery as essential to their economic success. The Northern States, on the other hand, wanted to abolish slavery and viewed it as an immoral practice. This was the basis of the Sectional Crisis that led to the American Civil War. The article aims to explore the evolution of the concept of slavery with respect to the United States, alongside discussing the well-known Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that has continued its legacy even today. 

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Slavery in the United States of America

The Africans were the first group of people who were subjected to slavery after several decades of being brought to the American colonies. The underlying reason for the same can be presumed to be racism. Several types of scientific research have revealed that blacks were considered to be a less evolved-a subspecies of the human race by the whites. They were denied fundamental human rights, thereby being enslaved as chattels, which had lasted for over two centuries. Salvers used to whip slaves when they displeased them. Preaching by the Clergy revealed that slavery was nothing but the will of the almighty God. 

With the increased advent of European powers trying to establish long-term colonies in America, there was a rise in the number of Africans who came in, generally against their will. By the late 16th century, Africans who were enslaved resided in Spanish Florida. Further, a group of 20 African people was brought captive to the Jamestown colony in Virginia, England, a year before the arrival of English pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The human suffering that was collectively making room in Europe, America, and Africa was reflected in the web of slavery, which was used as a means of building international trade and commerce. As it expanded, profound changes were brought about in not only politics and society but also in everyday aspects of living on multiple continents, thereby shaping the African experience in America for decades to come. 

The event that solidified the relevance of slavery was the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. It did not take much time for anti-slavery debates to echo in parts of the United States as by the mid-19th century, followed by America’s westward expansion, the American Civil War (1861-65) precipitated. Although four million slaves in the nation were set free following the Union’s victory, American history was very much influenced by the legacy carried by slavery, which began from the chaotic years of Reconstruction (1865-77) to the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1950s.

How did Africans suffer globally by the slave trade practice

The transatlantic slave trade that disrupted Western and Central societies in Africa had its origins when Europeans made a connection with African societies centuries ago. With the expansion of European colonies in America, Africa was looked at as a source of cost-effective labor in order to power plantations, grow farmlands, and mines. At the beginning of the 16th century, large numbers of African people were purchased systematically by Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch traders for the purpose of enslaving them permanently. Although slavery in some form was prevalent in these regions, what came as a surprise was the large-scale abduction and transportation of individuals for slavery, as well as treating enslaved individuals and their descendants as permanent properties. Shiploads of shackled people were being carried to America thereafter, crossing the Atlantic in several cargo ships. In exchange for these people, raw materials were imported into Europe. It has been estimated that more than 10 million people were transported from Africa as slaves to America during this period. Although the internet doesn’t provide us with the accurate number of people who lost their lives during such transportation, an estimate of about 1 million people can be said to have died on the journey to America. Those who had survived had to face a harsh life and an undignified living because of the white crowd. 

The legal basis for slavery in the US

When it comes to the legal standing of African Americans, the scenario has remained dynamic in North America. If we take into consideration the earliest years of settlement, laws surrounding the delineation of the African laborers’ civil status were ambiguous. The black workers then seemed to have occupied a similar social status to that of the white European servants who were serving their employers for a contract-bound time period. While it will not be a surprise to state that the black workers (generally in New Amsterdam) were frequently subject to vulnerability and ill-treatment by their masters, it is also ideal to note that these workers also enjoyed certain privileges that were subsequently denied as well. One of the prime privileges of black laborers was the right to approach the court with a suit against their employers, just like the right of white servants. Some, like Pedro Negretto and Manuel Rues, who had sued their employer for unpaid wages, had even won their cases. Documents available also reflect that Dutch courts had occasionally granted blacks the freedom to which they were entitled. Black people in the New Netherlands occupied a range of positions that ranged between slavery and freedom. Further, the Dutch West India Company had often given half-freedom to elderly blacks. This practice was also advantageous for the company, for whom older slaves were viewed as liabilities instead of assets. 

Even as enslaved African Americans made progress toward freedom and equal rights, they experienced setbacks in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Under gradual emancipation in the North, many blacks were forced into long periods of indenture or servitude. Meanwhile, a steadily growing black population in the North contributed to white anxiety and intensified racial animosities. Race riots broke out in U.S. cities, and in many areas where slavery had been abolished, governments were passing new discriminatory laws and reviving old ones. During the 1820s and 1830s, the Northern states were eliminating white men’s property qualifications for voting and for holding political office, yet simultaneously they were also enacting provisions outlawing black male suffrage. Like their southern counterparts, blacks in the North continued to face curfews and travel restrictions. They were forbidden from participating in the militia, and they could not sit on juries.

The legal basis for slavery in the US was based on the Three-Fifths Compromise. This compromise was included in the US Constitution and stated that for the purposes of taxation and representation, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person. This allowed the slave-owning states to gain more representation in Congress and gave them more power in the government. The Supreme Court also played an important role in upholding the legal basis for slavery in the US. The Court held in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) that the states had the right to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed for the return of escaped slaves. This ruling was used to justify the continuation of slavery in the US.

Legal standing of slavery across states in the US 

The legal standing of slavery that developed through events and judicial decisions has been discussed point by point, as follows: 

  1. Virginia legally recognized slavery as a lifelong condition in 1662. Blacks were being held as slaves, much before the recognition had taken place, as they were used as a replacement for white laborers for agricultural purposes during the second half of the seventeenth century. It was during this period that slavery was codified as a race-based system. The Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves, 1696 was passed by South Carolina, which outlined robust deterrents for different types of offenses that were committed by blacks thereby making room for exceptions that apply only to the whites who were charged with causing the death of a slave while the slave was carrying out a punishment. 
  2. The afore-mentioned Act dated 1696 was introduced as slave codes of Barbados and thereafter, became the prototype for other American colonies that were formulating oppression towards the blacks into law. Notably, it was Virginia that became the first colony to define slaves’ status, dated 1705, by means of using  explicit legal terms. According to the law dated 1705, the term ‘slaves’  comprised all blacks, mulattoes, Native Americans, and non-Christian persons. Slaves were also categorized as ‘real estate’ by this law. Limiting all powers of governing the slaves in the hands of the master, the enslaved men and women were made to face severe ramifications of the law. There were several restrictions that were placed on black individuals, among which one was to seek official permission from the White authorities in order to open a shop, which stood out to be notable (1717 Connecticut law). 
  3. Black immigration was prohibited in several states such as Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Lowa, as a number of such individuals were flooding the West in the  late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ohio had also passed a law named as ‘black laws’ in such a scenario. Introduced in 1804, the Ohio law required all blacks and mulattoes, who were free, to showcase the same with evidence before the county clerk’s office. Alongside this, the slaves who were registered had to submit a fee to the office, for them to issue a certificate confirming the slaves’ freedom. 
  4. The sovereignty of slaveholders in America was upheld in the landmark decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). In this case, Dred Scott, a slave, had approached the Supreme Court with the plea that as he was residing with his master in several territories where slavery was free, such as Wisconsin and Illinois, he was entitled to freedom. While rejecting the plea, the Apex Court had affirmed that the blacks could not be considered citizens and therefore were not able to avail the rights that were guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States. 
  5. The ratification of the Fourteenth and the Fifteenth Amendments in 1868 and 1870 respectively, made room for the blacks to be declared citizens by the law along with which black males had received the right to vote. There were several other laws that had given African Americans those rights that were initially denied to them, such as the right to sit on juries, be testified in court, the right to have their accounts recognized, and the right to hold office. Thus, it can be said that slaves were enjoying their newly acquired freedom and citizenship. It was during the Reconstruction years (1865-1877), that the blacks were actively involved in extending their political involvement as voters, activists, and elected officials. It is interesting to note that almost 800 blacks were said to be serving in state legislatures, and in every southern state, the posts of local offices had blacks holding the same. 
  6. Although we have seen progression in terms of slaves’ welfare, one cannot ignore that blacks in the South continued facing detriments as they tried to gain autonomy within their society. As have been discussed previously, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were responsible for guaranteeing fundamental rights to the black, but the same was not enforced which turned out not to be much of a help. The Civil Rights Bills that made headlines in the 1860s and 1870s, were the outcome of the violent climate in the South. The government’s change of heart concerning the Black citizens was noticed following the presidential election in 1877 that eventually removed existing Union troops from the South. Tennessee passed the first “Jim Crow” laws in the year 1888 in the US. Eventually, other states followed suit and legalized segregation. It is notable to mention that the effect of the 14th Amendment would not be felt if the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s had not seen the light of the day.

The Sectional Crisis and the Jacksonian Court

The Sectional Crisis was a period of growing tension between the North and the South over the issue of slavery. It was the Western expansion, along with the Mexican War, that was particularly responsible for initiating the differences between the North and South concerning slavery. This debate over slavery was a matter that extended for fifteen years, resulting in the Civil War in the long run. This tension was fueled by the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). The Court held that Congress had no power to abolish slavery in the US and that the US Constitution protected the right to own slaves.

The call for banning slavery germinated out of the Wilmot Proviso (bill), which was introduced in the Lower House in 1846 at the beginning of the Mexican War. Although it called for slavery banning in the Mexican Cession, the same was never passed by the Senate. Following Mexico, it was the leader of the Democrat’s Southern faction, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, who had contended that the limitation on slavery was inclusive of the rights to life, liberty, and property, with enslaved workers serving as their property, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment, to the Whites. Further, it was Echoing Aristotle, whose argument in affirmation of slavery stated that the same is essential for any democracy as it is the practice of slavery that binds free people together.  

The violence in Kansas and Washington reflected how gruesome these divisions had turned out to be. An antislavery condition that had aroused in the middle of the 1850s, recognized as the Republican Party, was a spurt of enthusiasm amid the full-throated endorsement of slavery that was prevalent at that time. The Sectional Crisis led to the election of President Andrew Jackson and the creation of the Jacksonian Court. This court was dominated by conservative judges who were sympathetic to the interests of the slave-owning states. The court issued a number of rulings that upheld the legal basis for slavery in the US and protected the interests of the slave-owning states.

The two landmark Supreme Court judgments that made notable marks in the pages of US history were Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). While in the 1842 case, the opinion of the Apex Court was that the right to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, 1850 did rest with the States, thereby allowing the return of escaped slaves and continuing the practice of slavery in the United States, the case of 1857 upheld Congress’s lack of power to abolish slavery. The case of 1857 affirmed that the right to own slaves was a constitutional right and valid under the US Constitution. It was this decision that was overturned by means of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, thereby marking the end of slavery practice in the United States. 

Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842)

In the landmark case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), a citizen of the State of Maryland named, Edward Prigg was charged with the offense of kidnapping a negro woman named Margaret Morgan, with the intent to disrobe and sell her as a slave by the Court of Oyer and Terminer of York County, Pennsylvania. This decision stood contrary to the statute of Pennsylvania that was passed on the 26th  day of March 1826. Following the same, Edward Prigg had pleaded innocent, and the jury’s verdict that was delivered for the found Commonwealth of Pennsylvania became noteworthy, as has been pointed out hereunder. Alongside that, when the case approached the Supreme Court, the conviction of Prigg was overturned :

  1. The Constitution goes beyond merely outlining the owner’s ability to apprehend his evading or fugitive slave in the State to which he may have fled. If it had, it would have frequently left the slave’s owner completely without any kind of appropriate recourse.
  2. The Constitution also declares that the fugitive slave shall be delivered on the basis that a party’s claim for service is due to the same. The fact that this decision of the Constitution stands opposite to the concept of personal liberty is exceedingly true.
  3. The right to seize and retake fugitive slaves alongside the duty of delivering them to their origin State is recognized as a positive right and duty by the Constitution. This, therefore, provides the Union with equal and progressive authority to ensure uniformity among States, which is not shadowed by any state sovereignty or state legislation.
  4. It was further opined that the legislation which had established the indictment against Edward Prigg stood unconstitutional and void. While the Constitution being the mother of all legislations upheld the act of seizing and removing a slave by his master, the alleged legislation of Pennsylvania denied the same thereby standing in contradiction with the supreme law of the land. 

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

In this article, there have been many times the reference to the landmark case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) was made.  The case has provided an ideal understanding of the concept of slavery that was prevalent in the United States of America and has also been a catalyst in shaping slavery jurisprudence in the States. It was just four years after this case that the Civil War began with the secession of the southern states of America. Initially, the Civil War was not considered a war over the prevalent system of slavery or a quest for the Blacks, but the history books reflected it only in that way. In 1863, amidst the war, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by then-President Lincoln, thereby freeing slaves in the rebel states. With the advent of the war coming to an end in 1865, the introduction of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution marked a beginning and a robust step towards abolishing slavery throughout the nation. 

Origin and analysis of the Thirteenth Amendment

When it comes to the origins of the Thirteenth Amendment, the same can be found both in the American Revolution as well as in the period of Reconstruction, when the American people ratified it into the US Constitution. The Americans emphasized the human value of liberty during both of these periods of time. The 13th Amendment was proposed in 1865 and ratified in December of that year. It was the first amendment to the US Constitution that abolished slavery in the US. The amendment reads, “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.”

It is noteworthy to mention that the root of the amendment was the Northwest Ordinance (1787), whose words it repeated.  The 1787 statute was the outcome of Thomas Jefferson’s rejected words in the Ordinance of 1784, which aimed to ban slavery after the year 1800 in all the western territories. It was Jefferson who was in favor of the phrase “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude.”

The 13th Amendment was required to be introduced because the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in January of 1863, as we had discussed previously, was not successful enough to bring the poignant practice of slavery to an end. It remained incompetent in freeing the slaves in the border states. The proclamation had kept the issue of slavery prevalent in territories, which would become states in the near future, in abeyance as well. It was as a consequence of this that Lincoln and other leaders realized the necessity of amending the Constitution so as to put a full stop to the practice of slavery. It was the 13th Amendment, which permanently abolished slavery as an institution in every US state and territory. 

The amendment was a result of the long struggle for abolition and the efforts of the anti-slavery movement. It was a major victory for the movement and an important step towards the end of slavery in the US. The amendment was a direct response to the US Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). 

The amendment remains a subject of discussion because, alongside banning slavery, it was responsible for outlawing the practice of involuntary servitude. Involuntary servitude is a term that is attached to individuals who have been forced to work so as to pay off debts that are due to them. The 13th Amendment, while bringing an end to this concept, has kept the window for it open for those convicted of a crime and those who have been drafted to serve in the military. It is ideal to note that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution did not pay any attention to the discrimination that was prevalent against those who had been enslaved already and were black but instead initiated the prolonged goal of achieving equality for all Americans.

The debate over the Thirteenth Amendment

The debate over the Thirteenth Amendment was a major part of the Sectional Crisis. The amendment was seen as a major threat to the interests of the slave-owning states. They argued that the amendment was unconstitutional and would lead to the destruction of the Union. Although some states saw the introduction of the progressive constitutional change as a better tomorrow, there were many states that were against this introduction and had contentions to raise. This resulted in the debate that has been the subject of discussion under the present administration. The discussed debate raised an important question concerning the situation of the rights of African-Americans in the US. This debate continued for long after the Civil War and remains a relevant discussion in today’s time as well.

The legacy of slavery and the Thirteenth Amendment

The promise of liberty that needs to be ensured for every individual, irrespective of the background he or she is coming from, is the burden of the states. The discussion concerning slavery and the 13th Amendment as a progressive remedy to counter the prevalent custom showcases the response of the government authorities toward securing dignified life and personal liberty. Although the discussion in this article has been an amalgamation of the history and present context of slavery in the United States, it is ideal to state that the infusion of the constitutional amendment alongside judicial responses on a similar subject matter, makes this article a relevant one.  

When talking about the legacy the practice and the amendment have left behind, it is necessary to talk about the current scenario of the same. Although we do not get express evidence of slavery being practiced in a developed nation like the United States, the perception towards Blacks remains a matter of concern at a global level, for racial discrimination has not come to an end even when we are living in the 21st century powered by artificial intelligence and robotic advancement. What we need in today’s time is the implementation of the precedent set by the progressive amendment to the US Constitution, along with changing our mindset towards a more inclusive living environment where dignity rises above the background or origin of an individual. 


As we come to the end of our article, it is necessary to state that the Thirteenth Amendment was a major milestone in the struggle for civil rights in the US. It abolished slavery in the US and paved the way for the end of the American Civil War. The amendment can be viewed as a symbol of justice and secured freedom, thereby leaving a legacy not only for the United States but for the world in general. The legacy of slavery in the US is still felt today in the way African-Americans are treated, and it is important to remember the history of slavery and the Thirteenth Amendment.



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