The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History

The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History

The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History

The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History


In this narrative history and contextual analysis of the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery and freedom take center stage. Alexander Tsesis demonstrates how entrenched slavery was in pre-Civil War America, how central it was to the political events that resulted in the Civil War, and how it was the driving force that led to the adoption of an amendment that ultimately provided a substantive assurance of freedom for all American citizens.

The story of how Supreme Court justices have interpreted the Thirteenth Amendment, first through racist lenses after Reconstruction and later influenced by the modern civil rights movement, provides insight into the tremendous impact the Thirteenth Amendment has had on the Constitution and American culture. Importantly, Tsesis also explains why the Thirteenth Amendment is essential to contemporary America, offering fresh analysis on the role the Amendment has played regarding civil rights legislation and personal liberty case decisions, and an original explanation of the substantive guarantees of freedom for today's society that the Reconstruction Congress envisioned over a century ago.


The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. Moreover, the amendment's contemporary relevance extends well beyond the abolition of slavery: Its two sections grant the federal government authority to prevent many private and state civil rights abuses. Congress can pass any laws preventing intrusions on liberty that it finds to be rationally related to slavery.

The amendment ended all aspects of the South's peculiar institution, which spread far beyond plantation husbandry into interstate commerce, government fiscal policy, and private sales transactions. Only some of the exploitations associated with slavery were related to forced labor. Slavery emaciated blacks' civil rights and created an aristocratic class that also disassociated itself from the welfare of white laborers. Slavery spread a tangled web that covered many essential aspects of U.S. society, devaluing individuals' humanity and denying them the opportunity to live a good life. Powerful forces in the United States, who imprinted the Constitution with their views, placed a greater value on property rights than on the civil rights of a large segment of the population. Property qualifications throughout the Union silenced blacks and unpropertied whites and prevented them from resorting to political alternatives for ending this hierarchy of privilege. Slave ownership became not only a means of plowing a plantation and caring for a household; it was also the way for whites to assert their supposed dominance both as individuals and as members of Southern society.

The control that masters had over their slaves did not only involve economic oppression. American society viewed slaves in commodification terms; thereby, the spurious right to own human chattel eclipsed slaves' rights to live free, unmolested lives. Owners' property interests trumped their slaves' basic interests of receiving wages, making parental decisions, choosing spouses, or traveling off plantations. The reach of the Thirteenth . . .

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