On December 6th 1985, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime.
This was the culmination of over a century of efforts from the abolitionist movement, as Northern states had provided for the gradual abolition of slavery since 1777, stimulated by the philosophies of the Declaration of Independence. Southern states however did not follow this movement, and the slave population continued to increase, peaking in 1861 with almost four million people. This difference and the tensions it created proved to be too great for the Union to deal with diplomatically, and following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1960, the South seceded in February 1961, leading to the America Civil War and 600,000 deaths.
The amendment had its roots in the emancipation proclamation of January 1, 1863, which for the first time allowed black men to fight for the Union. We often have a vision of Lincoln as a great revisionist and moral leader; however this move was made almost as much out necessity as any ideological reasons. For example, in a letter in 1962, he wrote: “I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the coloured element. I chose the latter”.
One interesting aspect of the 1865 Amendment is the clause, ‘except as punishment for a crime’. There are many who would argue that this, when coupled with elements of American society such as the war on drugs and institutional racism in the justice system, highlighted by recent protests related to Eric Garner and Michael Brown, are justification for a modern form of slavery in prisons.
America incarcerates a higher percentage of its population, 716 per 100,000 in 2013, than anywhere else in the world. To put that in perspective, America represents roughly five per cent of the world’s population but has twenty five per cent of global prisoners. The prison population has risen markedly since Nixon declared the ‘War on Drugs’ in 1970, and drug related charges now account for more than half the rise in state prisoners, and as of 2010, 31 million people had been arrested on drug related charges.
Black and Latino people are far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for minor drug related crimes than whites, despite drug usage among white communities being equal and often higher. Certain laws have also contributed to this, for example crack cocaine users, more likely to be black, receiving a harsher punishment than powder, more likely to be white. These facts, when coupled with prison privatisation that come into place under Reagan in the 1980s, highlight the unfair nature of the prison system in America and suggest further change needs to occur.
So today we should commemorate a giant leap forward that was made 149 years ago and celebrate the improvements we’ve made to our society in that time, but we also should not forget how far we still have to go.
Photo credit: Christian Matts