This online exhibit, focused on the amendment that abolished slavery in 1865, is adapted from the National Constitution Center's gallery on the constitutional legacies of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Explore objects and stories that capture the journey from slavery to freedom.
Slavery and the Early Republic
Although founded on the principle that “all men are created equal,” the United States practiced and profited from slavery. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, delegates refused to recognize a “right” to “property in men,” leaving the question of slavery to Congress and the states. Congress ended participation in the international slave trade in 1808. However, enslaved people of color continued to be bought and sold within the United States. Rising tensions over slavery created the greatest constitutional conflicts of the early Republic, eventually leading to war.
An Economy Powered by Slavery
The value of enslaved people increased drastically from 1800 to 1865. Across the United States, Americans profited from the crops cultivated by enslaved laborers, including cotton, tobacco, and rice. Northern banks, merchants, and insurance companies provided economic resources for Southern plantations, and businesses depended on trade with slave states.
During the 1850s, cotton production proved increasingly lucrative—causing many to fight for the protection and expansion of slavery.
Distribution of enslaved population (1860) by Census Office, Department of the InteriorOriginal Source: Library of Congress
This map was created based on the 1860 census. According to the map key, the darkest-shaded counties had enslaved populations of 80 percent or higher. The lightest shading was used for counties where less than 19 percent of the population was enslaved.
Receipt for the sale of Lucy Ann (1862)Original Source: Tulane University, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library
This 1862 receipt records the purchase of Lucy Ann, an enslaved woman in Richmond, Virginia, for the price of $775. As the slave trade expanded within the United States, auction houses used fillable receipts like the one seen here—effectively speeding up the transaction process.
Printing block depicting a runaway slave (ca. 1820s-30s)National Constitution Center
Printers used the image on this small wooden block to advertise fugitive slaves. For the return of their lost “property,” slave owners took out newspaper ads and offered rewards. Ads often noted the skin color, traits, and scars of the person who ran away.
The American Experience Under Slavery
Enslavement stripped people of their basic human rights. Under this forced labor system, slave owners asserted control through torture, terror, and assault. People fought against their enslavement in every way possible. In addition to fleeing north, some organized rebellions or initiated freedom suits in the courts. Others built churches and opened secret, underground schools. Against all odds, Black people fought to maintain a sense of self, family, and community.
Handmade mandolin (ca. 1800s)Original Source: The National Civil War Museum
An enslaved person crafted this mandolin. Music, songs, and dances based on African traditions were a vibrant aspect of daily life. Drums were used to signal a slave rebellion in 1739, so some owners saw instruments as a form of resistance and banned them.
Some enslaved people ran away to escape bondage. Others used state courts to sue for their freedom. One of the most famous cases involved Dred and Harriet Scott, a married couple who petitioned for their freedom in Missouri after residing in free territory.
Dred Scott's petition for freedom (April 6, 1846)Original Source: Missouri State Archives
This is Dred Scott's original petition for freedom, which initiated a decade-long pursuit that ended up at the Supreme Court. The Scotts’ claims were rejected in 1857, and the court ruled that African Americans were not citizens.
Dred Scott signed the petition, the first step in a long battle for freedom. Because enslaved people were prohibited from learning to read or write, Scott left his mark—an “X”—at the bottom of the page.
"Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman" (1869) by Sarah H. BradfordOriginal Source: The Library Company of Philadelphia
This book captures the extraordinary life of Harriet Tubman—from abolitionist to Civil War spy. After escaping slavery and becoming a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Tubman led several hundred people to freedom. She used the royalties from this book to pay off her home.
A Crusade Against Slavery
As enslaved people pursued freedom, anti-slavery activists grew more vocal. Black and white Americans joined together in a common cause, organizing societies and calling upon the nation to live up to its founding promises. Their approaches to ending slavery often revolved around their view of the Constitution: Was it a pro-slavery or pro-freedom document? Some advocated radical means, using direct action and armed conflict to challenge gradual, more cautious approaches. Others sought political reform—hoping to limit the spread of slavery.
Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York Fugitive Slave Law Convention, Cazenovia, New York (August 22, 1850) by Ezra Greenleaf WeldThe J. Paul Getty Museum
"We will do all that in us lies . . . to overthrow the most execrable system of slavery that has ever been witnessed upon earth—to deliver our land from its deadliest curse—to wipe out the foulest stain which rests upon our national escutcheon—and to secure to the colored population of the United States all the rights and privileges which belong to them as men, and as Americans."
– American Anti-Slavery Society, 1833
"The Anti-Slavery Alphabet" children’s book (1847)Original Source: The Library Company of Philadelphia
White Northerners and free African Americans organized anti-slavery societies to draw attention to the evils of slavery. Members of these groups sent petitions to Congress, organized resistance to slave catchers and kidnappers, and printed literature to spread awareness of the sin of slavery, like the alphabet book shown here. Black and white women were active in both abolitionist and feminist circles, establishing female anti-slavery societies to support equal rights for all.
Frederick Douglass (1847/52) by Samuel J. Miller (American, 1822–1888)The Art Institute of Chicago
“If the South has made the Constitution bend to the purposes of slavery, let the North now make that instrument bend to the cause of freedom and justice.”
– Frederick Douglass, 1860
Pen and inkwell used by Frederick Douglass (ca. 1800s)Original Source: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Frederick Douglass used this pen and inkwell during his lifelong quest to promote equal rights. After discovering James Madison’s statement that it would be “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men,” he came to view the Constitution as pro-freedom. Seeking reform, not revolution, Douglass supported anti-slavery politicians who would use their political power to abolish slavery.
William Lloyd Garrison (ca. 1870)Original Source: Library of Congress
“[The Constitution is] a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.”
– William Lloyd Garrison, 1855
"The Liberator" masthead (July 25, 1856)Original Source: Temple University Libraries, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection
William Lloyd Garrison founded the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831. A fiery journalist, Garrison publicly burned the Constitution, denouncing it as a pro-slavery document. To rid the nation of the sin of slavery, he advocated immediate emancipation—and if necessary, the separation of the North from the South.
John Brown (1846-1847) by Augustus WashingtonOriginal Source: National Portrait Gallery
“Mingle my blood further with . . . the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments.”
– John Brown, 1859
Pike purchased by John Brown for the Harpers Ferry Raid (1857)Original Source: Civil War Museum of Philadelphia
This pike was one of hundreds purchased by militant abolitionist John Brown to lead a war to free enslaved people. In 1859, Brown organized and armed 21 men—including five African Americans—to raid an arsenal at Harpers Ferry (in present-day West Virginia). The unsuccessful attack led to Brown’s execution—and spread fear throughout the South.
States Secede and Form the Confederacy
Conflicts over slavery erupted as America moved westward and compromise efforts collapsed. These competing sectional interests—culminating in the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, who pledged to limit slavery's expansion—led states to secede from the Union.
Gathering in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861, delegates from the seceding states formed a new government. By May, the Confederacy consisted of 11 states. Their constitution mirrored the U.S. Constitution—but explicitly protected “the right of property in negro slaves.”
War Breaks Out
In one of his first acts as president, Abraham Lincoln decided to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, after a months-long siege—rather than give in to the seceding state’s demands to abandon it. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire, and the war officially began. Lincoln initially focused on preserving the Union rather than ending slavery. However, enslaved people embraced the chance for freedom and protection by fleeing to U.S. lines. Their demands and willingness to aid the war effort forced the government to address slavery, and ultimately, turn toward emancipation.
Emancipation Proclamation (June 1864)National Constitution Center
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln used his war powers to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The order freed enslaved people in rebel states and authorized the enlistment of African American troops.
Learn more about the proclamation in the upcoming video, as explained by Jeffrey Rosen, President and CEO of the National Constitution Center. (Please note that the audio and video will play automatically.)
When war broke out in 1861, many African American men volunteered, but the government did not permit them to enlist. As part of the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.S. Colored Troops was established in May 1863.
Thousands enlisted, and a few reached the rank of commissioned officer. Only able-bodied men could join, but women, children, and the elderly supported the Union effort by working in army camps. Black men later used their service to lay claim to citizenship.
Supporting an Abolition Amendment
Although its impact was limited, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the character of the war. Lincoln and other Republicans knew that only a constitutional amendment could end slavery everywhere. In the midst of war, the nation held a presidential election. Voters would not only weigh in on Lincoln's war record, but also on the question of slavery's abolition. Once Lincoln won reelection in 1864, he supported the amendment's passage in Congress—helping to ensure that abolition would become a permanent part of the Constitution. He described the amendment as a “King’s cure” for the evils of slavery.
Making the Amendment
An abolition amendment was first proposed in the U.S. House on December 14, 1863. Lincoln pushed for legislative approval after his 1864 reelection and support grew in Congress. As they deliberated, some legislators voiced concerns about amending the Constitution at all; the last time this occurred was in 1804 with the 12th Amendment, which concerned presidential elections. Congressmen also debated the text, arguing over the terms of abolition and its enforcement.
Explore the key clauses of the 13th Amendment below. To dig deeper into the drafting history of the amendment, check out this online interactive.
13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (January 31, 1865) by United States CongressOriginal Source: National Archives
The 13th Amendment outlined the abolition of slavery. Congress debated the wording of three key clauses before settling on the final text.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Abolition was included in all five drafts of the amendment. This final wording freed all enslaved people, but it did not compensate former owners for any loss of what they considered “property.”
“. . . except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted . . .”
This clause created a loophole, permitting states to use forced labor as criminal punishment.
Sen. Charles Sumner (ca. 1860-1875)Original Source: Library of Congress
Four of the five proposed drafts of the amendment allowed forced labor as criminal punishment. Only one, proposed by Senator Charles Sumner, excluded it. Instead, Sumner pushed for an amendment declaring that “all persons are equal before the law.”
Map of the Northwest Territory (1800) by Samuel LewisOriginal Source: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection
Congress rejected Sumner’s proposal. Instead, drafters borrowed language from Thomas Jefferson’s 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which outlawed slavery but allowed forced labor to continue as criminal punishment.
Leased convicts working in a field (ca. 1903)Original Source: Library of Congress
Because of the loophole, practices such as “convict leasing” were technically constitutional. In these arrangements, private business owners rented prisoners from state authorities and forced them to work without pay. Due to racially discriminatory law enforcement practices, these prisoners were often African American.
13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (January 31, 1865) by United States CongressOriginal Source: National Archives
Section Two of the amendment addressed how its provisions would be enforced.
“Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The Constitution's original text from 1787, as well as early amendments, limited the powers of the national government. The 13th Amendment was the first major attempt to expand these powers since the nation’s founding. It empowered Congress to enforce its provisions—ultimately serving as a model for future amendments.
After much debate, Congressional Republicans achieved something that would have been unimaginable before the Civil War—immediate, uncompensated emancipation.
Congress Passes the Amendment
On Jan. 31, 1865, spectators watched as the U.S. House voted in favor of abolition. Both houses of Congress (without representatives from the states still in rebellion) had passed the amendment. The celebration was so joyous that Congress adjourned.
The War Ends
Several months after Congress voted to abolish slavery, the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. Within six days of the surrender, President Lincoln lay dead at the hands of actor John Wilkes Booth, who hoped to avenge the South. The war-torn nation descended into mourning. For four long years, the war had dragged on, and nearly three million soldiers served. An estimated 750,000 people lost their lives in the conflict—including 40,000 Black soldiers.
Reconstruction was America’s attempt to rebuild after the war. However, Congressional Republicans did not seek to simply restore the nation to its original status. Black and white Americans, including formerly enslaved people, continued the fight to end slavery, protect freedoms, and guarantee equality for all. Congress had already passed the 13th Amendment—but now it needed to be ratified by the states.
Ratification and Impact
By December 6, 1865, three-fourths of the states had ratified the 13th Amendment, making it a part of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment permanently outlawed slavery in the United States. Following decades of activism, resistance, and rebellion, abolitionists and formerly enslaved people finally saw their efforts inscribed into the Constitution. African Americans embraced their freedom, mobilizing to reunite families, escape coercive relationships, and form new communities.
Group of "contrabands" in Virginia (1862) by James F. GibsonOriginal Source: Library of Congress
“Mama and them didn’t know where to go, you see after freedom broke. . . . Turned us out just like, you know, you turn out cattle.”
- Laura Smalley interviewed in Hempstead, Texas, 1941
The slave trade brutally separated enslaved families, even tearing them apart at the auction block. With the 13th Amendment's ratification, family members sought every means to reconnect. They sent letters, asked travelers, and purchased newspaper ads to locate loved ones.
The following ads show the efforts taken to reunite with loved ones after slavery. The newspaper ads were gathered by graduate students as part of the Last Seen project, directed by Judith Giesberg, Professor of History, Villanova University. You can learn more about this digital history project by visiting their website.
Lizzie Taylor wants to locate her cousin (August 25, 1894)Original Source: Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery
In this ad, Lizzie Taylor notes that she is “all alone in the world” and “anxious to find” her cousin.
Lucindy Millsap searches for her two brothers (July 18, 1891)Original Source: Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery
Lucindy Millsap searches for her two brothers—one of whom is blind. They ran away with General William T. Sherman's forces in 1864.
Joseph Washington searches for his father and uncle (December 21, 1893)Original Source: Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery
Joseph Washington seeks information on the whereabouts of his father and uncle who were sold 40 years ago.
Richard Zeigler finds his wife after 32 years (February 22, 1883)Original Source: Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery
After 32 years, Richard Zeigler receives a telegram from his long-lost wife.
Ending slavery meant building a system of free labor. The prospect of a better future—to see actual profits from their labor—caused many freed people to remain on the land where they had been enslaved. Although some migrated to Southern cities to search for work and to escape abusive planters, many did not have the means to leave. For many African Americans, the promises of free labor turned into a reality of low wages, poor working conditions, and growing debt.
“40 Acres and a Mule”
In 1865, General William T. Sherman redistributed land once held by white Southerners and set it aside for Black settlement. This wartime promise for land vanished during President Andrew Johnson’s administration.
Andrew Johnson, who took office after Lincoln was assassinated, believed that freed people did not have legal title to land confiscated from white Southerners during the war. After much debate, Congress failed to stop white landowners from reclaiming their property.
Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands
In March 1865, Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau to oversee the South’s transition to free labor. Bureau offices were supervised by military officers. They ran hospitals, distributed food, and supported access to fair labor contracts and an education.
Freedmen’s Bureau letter concerning unpaid wages (1868) by Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned LandsOriginal Source: Louisiana State University Libraries
Writing on behalf of free laborers, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent sent this letter to their employer, requesting that their wages be paid in full. The workers had only received one-third of their earnings for picking 58 bales of cotton. As the South transitioned to a free-labor system, Bureau agents stepped in to resolve such disputes.
Agreement with freedmen (1865)Original Source: Louisiana State University, Hill Memorial Library
Freed people negotiated the terms of their labor through contracts like the one seen here. This agreement required the plantation owner to pay the laborers and provide “just treatment, wholesome food, comfortable clothing and quarters, fuel and necessary medical attention, [and] the opportunity for instructing our children.” This contract was signed near the end of the Civil War, as ordered by the U.S. Army.
Apprentice indenture (1866)Original Source: Tulane University, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library
This apprentice indenture required two African American children, Albert and Lemon, to work on a Florida plantation without pay. Under apprenticeship laws, orphans, young Black people, and impoverished children who left a planter’s property without approval would be captured. If their overseer was not satisfied with their reason for leaving, they could be arrested.
Remembering Life After Slavery
The following interview clips capture what life was like for three African Americans immediately after they achieved freedom. These interviews were conducted in the 1940s—decades after the end of slavery.
These recordings have been preserved by the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. (Please note that the audio will play automatically.)
Fountain Hughes (ca. 1952)Original Source: Library of Congress
Fountain Hughes discusses the challenges of adjusting to free life.
Fountain Hughes: After we got freed and they turned us out like cattle, we could, we didn't have nowhere to go. And we didn't have nobody to boss us, and, uh, we didn't know nothing. There wasn't, wasn't no schools. And when they started a little school, why, the people that were slaves, there couldn't many of them go to school, except they had a father and a mother. And my father was dead, and my mother was living, but she had three, four other little children, and she had to put them all to work for to help take care of the others. So we had, uh, we had what you call, worse than dogs has got it now. Dogs has got it now better than we had it when we come along. I know, I remember one night, I was out after I, I was free, and I didn't have nowhere to go. I didn't have nowhere to sleep. I didn't know what to do. My brother and I was together. So we knew a man that had a, a livery stable. And we crept in that yard, and got into one of the hacks of the automobile, and slept in that hack all night long.
Cyrus B. Koonce collection (AFC 1950/037), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Isom Mosley (October 1939) by Marion Post WalcottOriginal Source: Library of Congress
Isom Mosley shares his memories of work after slavery.
Robert Sonkin (interviewer): What happened after the surrender? . . .
Moseley: Well now, they tell me it was a, a year before the folks knowed that, uh, they was free. And when they found out they was free, they worked on shares, they tell me. Worked on shares, didn't rent no land, they worked on shares. Now you know I was a boy, I'm about explaining to the best of my understanding. They say they worked on shares. I think they said it was, was it fourth, or third I think. They got the third, I think they say, what they made, after surrender. . . .
Sonkin: How old were you when you came into Gee's Bend?
Moseley: How old I was? Seventeen year old. Seventeen year old and I come in the Bend here. . . . But old man J. P., he was, he was a good man. He stayed here, I stayed here with him. Then he died, he been dead for 40 some odd year. And uh, another thing about him. No, he had 10 wage hands and uh, four plowers and, and six hoe hands. Never had a ride over them the whole time. Now he'd get up soon of a morning and ride around. Now uh, what we would be, the sun be a half hour high before you left home, he'd be in the field. That he would. And you know he'd make good crops. Now he'd go soon of a morning, about eight o'clock he done been all around to his renters and to his wage hands and making it out to the house. And late in the evening, he'd go back again. Now he had a colored man for his foreman and the old hands and a colored man head of the plowers. That's what they say. Now he make plenty corn with them 10 hands, and 40 and 50 bales of cotton. And he never had no rider over them.
Robert Sonkin Alabama and New Jersey collection, 1937-1941 (AFC 1941/018), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Laura SmalleyNational Constitution Center
Laura Smalley remembers the original Juneteenth.
Unidentified female interviewer: You were born right there and never did leave? You were?
Laura Smalley: Born right there and stayed there until I was about nine, ten years old, maybe more. . . . Mama and them didn't know where to go, you see after freedom broke. Just turned, just like you turn something out, you know. Didn't know where to go. That's just where they stayed. Hmm. Didn't know where to go. Turned us out just like, you know, you turn out cattle. [laughs] I say. Didn't know where ta go. . . . You know, and old master didn't tell you know, they was free.
John Henry Faulk (interviewer): He didn't tell you that?
Smalley: Uh-uh. No he didn't tell. They worked there, I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the nineteenth of June. That's why, you know, we celebrate that day. Colored folks—celebrates that day. [repeats end of sentence] . . . .
Faulk: Well, can you remember how the, what, what happened when they set you free?
Do you remember what the, can you, you remember how the old master acted when they—
Smalley: No, sir. I can't remember that, you know. Can't remember that. But I, I remember, you know, the time you give them a big dinner, you know on the nineteenth.
Faulk: Is that right?
Smalley: On, on the nineteenth, you know. That's called, they still have it, give them a big dinner—on nineteenth. Well now, we didn't know about [unintelligible]. I don't hide the other side of the folks, you know, freedom. We didn't know. They just thought, you know, were just feeding us, you know. Just had a long table. And just had ah, just a little of everything you want to eat, you know. And drink, you know. Now, and they say that was on the nineteenth—and everything you want to eat and drink. Well, you see, I didn't know what that was for.
John Henry Faulk recordings of Negro religious services (AFC 1941/016), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Check out this online interactive to continue exploring and listening to a curated selection of interviews.
The Legacy of Emancipation
Following decades of anti-slavery activism, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment brought the nation closer to achieving the promises of the Declaration of Independence. Although these were important milestones, the fight for equality continued. The progress achieved during Reconstruction was soon stymied by white supremacist violence, voter discrimination laws, and federal court decisions. The promises of freedom and equality lived on in the Constitution—ready for future generations to make them a reality.
This exhibit was developed and designed by the National Constitution Center. To learn more about the entire exhibit, including how to visit, check out our website.
To continue exploring the exhibit online, visit our virtual exhibit.
Want to learn more about how the 13th Amendment was drafted? Check out the Interactive Constitution's Drafting Table.
You can also listen to more interviews with formerly enslaved people in the online interactive, “In Their Own Words.”