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. —Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
On January 31, 1865—just four months before the Civil War ended with the surrender of the Confederate Army—the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill proposing to amend the United States Constitution. The next day, on February 1, President Lincoln signed the Joint Resolution Proposing the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, clearing the way for ratification of the amendment to abolish slavery.
Scene in the Room of the Passage of the Proposition to Amend the Constitution, January 31, 1865
Published in Harper’s Weekly, vol. IX, no. 425 (February 18, 1865)Courtesy of the Library of Congress
But it wasn’t until the end of the year, on December 5, 1865, that the proposal received the necessary number of states (three-quarters of the thirty-six states in the union) to ratify. California’s ratification shortly followed on December 19.
Although California’s constitution of 1849 banned slavery (Article 1, Sec. 18., “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State”), hundreds of black slaves were brought to California to work primarily as miners and domestics during Gold Rush. By January 1865, when Congress approved the resolution proposing an amendment to abolish slavery, there may have been between 600 and 1,000 enslaved Africans who had arrived in California prior to the Civil War.
African American Miner Working a Long Tom, c. 1852
Quarter-plate daguerreotype, attributed to J. B. Starkweather
Courtesy of California State Library
Advertisement in the Sacramento Transcript, April 1, 1850
Courtesy of Stacey Smith
Although California was technically designated a “free” (non-slave) state upon joining the union in 1850, blacks and other nonwhite citizens were legally denied access to public education, the right to vote, and other civil rights. During the 1850s, California legislators attempted to pass exclusion bills preventing black immigration to the state.
African American Man and Woman, c. 1855–1895
From the Carl Mautz collection of cartes-de-visite photographs created by California photographers,Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Many Californians—particularly white southern residents of the state—supported slavery as a viable economic institution in the West. As noted in a November 1851 issue of the Daily Alta California: “If the southern section of our own State should succeed in dissolving the union with the North, it is quite possible that an attempt will be made to make this a new field for slave labor on the Pacific.”
Between 1852 and 1855, slaves or fugitives from slave states prior to statehood were subject to California’s Fugitive Slave Law. As historian Stacey L. Smith describes: “This law allowed masters who had taken their slaves into California before official statehood (while it was still a federal territory and before the state constitution went into effect) to keep them and take them back to the slave states. Slaves who resisted this process were to be treated as fugitives from labor.”
Following ratification of the 13th Amendment, California legislators dismantled much of the state’s proslavery legislation, but the battle for civil rights for blacks in California and throughout the nation would continue.
The White Slave, 1863
Courtesy of California State Parks
This stereocard—a popular form of early photography, which, when viewed with a stereoscope, produces a 3-D image—was printed in San Francisco in 1863. It suggests the fear among some white Americans of the era—even in California—that whites could become second-class citizens if black were granted their freedom.Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Managerskale@calhist.org
- The Civil War in California
- Of Human Bondage: The History of Slavery in California
- Delilah Beasley, “Slavery in California,” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 3, no. 1 (Jan. 1918): 33–34
- “Slavery in the Pacific,” Daily Alta California, Nov. 9, 1851
- Stacey L. Smith, “California’s Last Slave Case,” New York Times, Mar. 5, 2014
- Stacey L. Smith, “Slavery of Free Soil: California’s Unfree Past,” 2014,
To celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of ratification of the 13th Amendment, the National Archives Museum is marking the sesquicentennial anniversary of ratification of the 13th Amendment with a “Featured Document” display of California’s ratification of the amendment in the East Rotunda Gallery through January 6, 2016. https://www.archives.gov/press/press-releases/2016/nr16-26.html