The Thirteenth Amendment: Ratification Begins

February 23, 1865 – Minnesota became the 15th state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permanently abolishing slavery.

Celebrating the end of slavery | Image Credit:

On February 1, the day after Congress passed this new amendment, President Abraham Lincoln signed a joint congressional resolution submitting the proposed measure to the state legislatures for ratification. Since the amendment had already been approved by two-thirds of both chambers of Congress, Lincoln’s signature was merely a symbolic gesture.

On the same day, Lincoln’s home state of Illinois became the first state to ratify the amendment. Illinois had also recently repealed its laws forbidding blacks from entering the state which, according to Harper’s Weekly

“… were as much a part of the code of slavery as any slave law of Arkansas or Mississippi… all colored persons (in Illinois) were presumed to be slaves unless they could prove themselves to be free… they were held to be guilty until they proved their innocence: thus directly reversing the first humane maxim of the common law. By another act, if any negro or mulatto came into the State and staid ten days, he was to be fined fifty dollars, and sold indefinitely to pay the fine.”

That evening, Lincoln addressed a crowd celebrating passage of the amendment at the White House. He said, “The occasion was one of congratulation to the country and to the whole world. But there is a task yet before us–to go forward and consummate by the votes of the states that which Congress so nobly began.”

Lincoln praised members of Congress for approving the measure, which he called “the fitting if not indispensable adjunct to the consummation of the great game we are playing.” He said that courts could have ruled his Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional, “But this amendment is a King’s cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up.”

Throughout February, state legislatures debated and voted on whether to approve the amendment. By month’s end, in addition to Illinois the following states approved: Rhode Island, Michigan, New York, West Virginia, Maine, Kansas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Nevada, and Minnesota. Also approving were the Unionist legislatures of Missouri, Maryland, and Louisiana.

The “Restored Government of Virginia,” led by Francis H. Pierpont and having authority only in regions of Virginia under Federal military occupation, voted to ratify the amendment. The state of Virginia still had a popularly elected government loyal to the Confederacy, but U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward deemed Pierpont’s regime legitimate enough to count its ratification towards the three-fourths majority needed to add the amendment to the Constitution. Of the non-Confederate states, only Delaware and Kentucky rejected the amendment.

This measure could not become law without support from at least a minority of southern states. The Lincoln administration expected to restore these states to the Union, and a condition of their restoration would be to approve the amendment, giving it an excellent chance of becoming law. When the Thirteenth Amendment was finally ratified in December, slavery in America was abolished forever.



Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15664-74; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 686-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 631-43; Black Laws in Illinois

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