On this day in history, December 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially abolished slavery in America, and was ratified after the conclusion of the American Civil War. The amendment states: “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.”

When the American Civil War (1861-65) began, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) carefully framed the conflict as concerning the preservation of the Union rather than the abolition of slavery. Although he personally found the practice of slavery abhorrent, he knew that neither Northerners nor the residents of the border slave states would support abolition as a war aim. However, by mid-1862, as thousands of slaves fled to join the invading Northern armies, Lincoln was convinced that abolition had become a sound military strategy, as well as the morally correct path.

On September 22, soon after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave (there were an estimated 800,000 slaves in border states and some 3 million more in Confederate states), it was an important turning point in the war, transforming the fight to preserve the nation into a battle for human freedom.

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