February 1865

Illinois Ratifies the Thirteenth Amendment

Section 1. 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.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

On February 1, 1865, Illinois became the first state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would end human slavery throughout the United States. On the previous day, January 31, the amendment received final approval by Congress and was submitted to the states for ratification. Illinois U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull, an author of the amendment, immediately telegraphed to Governor Richard J. Oglesby, informing him of the event and calling for the governor to make certain that “Ill[inoi]s be the first to ratify.” (Official notification by the U.S. State Department, with a copy of the proposed amendment, would not be sent from Washington until February 2.) Oglesby received the telegram on the morning of February 1, and immediately sent a message to the houses of the General Assembly, then in session at the statehouse (today the Old State Capitol State Historic Site). He repeated Trumbull’s call for immediate action, adding a plea for magnificent justice:

“It is just, it is humane, it is right to do so. The whole public mind of the country is rapidly arriving at this conclusion. So far as we can by any act of our State destroy this pestilent cause of civil discord, disruption and dissolution—the source of so much unhappiness and misery to the people of the whole nation, let us do so, and do so now. It is a fit occasion to speak out to the world upon a question of such magnitude, and the whole civilized world will joyously ratify the deed; the proud soldier in the field will shout ‘amen,’ and march on to new victories with a firmer and more confident step.”

Before the noontime adjournment both houses had received the governor’s message and drafted resolutions that would ratify the amendment. The Senate took up the matter soon after reassembling at 2 o’clock.

Only short debate took place that afternoon. Real discussion of amending the U.S. Constitution had taken place several days earlier, when it was proposed to instruct Illinois’ congressional delegation to support an antislavery amendment. Some opponents shared the feeling of many Americans that the Constitution was a kind of sacred text that might be amended to clarify—but never to change—its basic meaning. Others feared how the powers given to Congress by the amendment’s second section might be used against the states. Many supporters of the amendment (including some Democrats) agreed with Governor Oglesby that the institution that had been the cause of four years of turmoil and bloodshed must be destroyed. Others supported the affirmation of the simple justice of freedom.

The midafternoon Senate vote on ratification resulted in approval, 18 yeas to 6 nays. Every Republican and five Democratic senators supported passage. The House received the Senate resolution for action shortly before 4 o’clock. The vote to adopt stood at 48 ayes to 28 nays. An official copy of the resolution was soon produced and then signed by Governor Oglesby, Speaker of the House Allen C. Fuller, and Lieutenant Governor William Bross as Speaker of the Senate.

Illinois had become the first state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. In Washington, D.C., a telegram from Governor Oglesby to President Lincoln arrived at 7:30 p.m., reporting that the Illinois legislature had ratified “by a large majority… Great enthusiasm.” The president in turn shared the news with supporters of the amendment who had gathered in front of the White House, saying “he felt proud that Illinois was a little ahead.” Within a week ten more states ratified the amendment.

Some opponents of the amendment still hoped that it would fail to become part of the Constitution. Springfield’s Illinois State Register commented on February 3, 1865:

“The end is not yet. The amendment is a dead letter unless twenty-seven [states] concur in the ratification, being three-fourths of all the states… It remains to be seen whether this measure, begotten in wrong, and so far consummated without reflection, will ultimately be successful.”

By year’s end the Register’s hopes were dashed. On December 18, 1865, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward officially declared the Thirteenth Amendment to have been adopted as a part of the U.S. Constitution. An editor of the Peoria Transcript wrote joyously:

“Henceforth the stars and stripes are to be truly the emblems of liberty! Henceforth America is to be synonymous with Freedom!… The country is free! A hideous relic of the barbarism of the dark ages has been swept from the land, and Freedom stands forth like a young giant, clothed in beauty and fashioned like a god! Let the people rejoice. Let them thank God that the festering, pestering, monstrous curse is removed, and that we are truly what we have claimed to be—a nation of free men!”

Slavery in Illinois
The Illinois legislature’s vote to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, completed in a matter of hours, was an amazing turnabout for the state.

Illinois had itself been home to slaveholding. Early French settlers introduced African slavery into what is today Illinois in about 1720. Slaves continued to be held in Illinois when the territory passed to Great Britain in 1763 and to the new United States in 1783. While the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, declared in Article 6 that “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes,” Section 2 guaranteed “the French and Canadian inhabitants… their laws and customs now in force among them, relative to the descent and conveyance of property,” including enslaved African Americans.

The descendants of slaves owned by the French settlers would continue to be held as property for years after Illinois became a state in 1818. The General Assembly established a system of quasi-slavery under the guise “voluntary” servitude through long-term contracts called indentures. The use of slave labor was also permitted by law to operate the salt springs in far southeastern Illinois. In the 1840s, however, Illinois Supreme Court decisions began to chip away at the right to own people, even by way of consensual contracts. In 1852 the court declared that the only non-free persons in Illinois were fugitives who had escaped from slavery in the South.

Amend the U.S. Constitution to protect slavery? Even as Illinois moved to abolish all forms of slavery within the state controversy arose over introducing the institution into new U.S. territories. When the nation began to break apart with the secession of South Carolina in December 1860, some proposed to calm the Southern states by amending the U.S. Constitution to explicitly protect slavery: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

The so-called Corwin Amendment was sent to the states for ratification in March 1861. Within six weeks the Confederate attack on U.S. Army forces at Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina, put an end to the proslavery amendment. Or did it?

A convention to draft a new constitution for the State of Illinois met in early 1862. Almost a full year into a bloody rebellion, delegates who hoped to bring peace with the seceded states by guaranteeing the right to hold slaves sought to ratify the Corwin Amendment. They succeeded in achieving a majority vote. However, because the Illinois convention was not a legally constituted legislative body its action was held to be void.

A year later, in 1863, members of the Illinois General Assembly who supported conciliation of the rebel states voted on a resolution to ratify the Corwin Amendment. It passed both houses, which were dominated by Democrats opposed to the Lincoln administration’s conduct of the war and its emancipation policies. Republican governor Richard Yates, a strong antislavery man, refused to sign the resolution and soon closed the legislative session, making a final end to efforts in Illinois to approve the Corwin Amendment.