The Thirteenth Amendment

by Mary E. Stuckey

Professor, Communication Arts & Sciences, Penn State University

I study the presidency and national identity, the unique ability the president has to speak for us as a nation, to give voice to the ideals that unite, and that also sometimes divide us. From the very beginning of the nation, many of those ideals have been inconsistent with our political practices. So a nation that was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” was also a nation that held some people as property and enslaved them. Citizens with the courage to point out and work to resolve these contradictions are the ones who have helped bring the nation closer to its ideals; they are the ones who keep us reaching for the best we can be. And sometimes, their courage results in important changes in public policy.The thirteenth amendment represents one such change.

It wasn’t enough to ensure equality then, and it hasn’t led to equality now.The hard truth is that the Civil War was fought over slavery.The thirteenth amendment was the product of war.As we remember that war and its aftermath, we need to think long and hard about what we remember means for us as a nation.The recent events in Charlottesville and the presidential response to those events have made this a very important question. But he’s not the only one who has to answer it.

The question of slavery has been answered.The thirteenth amendment settled that issue for all time. But the question of the national commitment to human equality has not been settled.Q It is easy to offer cliches about how we are the freest, most equal nation on earth. Doing the hard work of equality is another matter. Our presidents have, for much of the last century, helped us see why that work is necessary, and have shown us how to do it.They have often been pushed to do so by citizens who have risked a great deal in their efforts to bring the nation closer to its own ideals.

What we are seeing now is, I think, evidence of how citizens force presidents to speak on issues of national concern, and in so doing, to define who we are as a nation.That so many people disagree so vehemently with the president on the question of who we are is unusual, to say the least, and marks this celebration of Constitution Day as one in which we decide the extent to which we are dedicated to the ideals and practices embodied in the amendments to the Constitution that followed the Civil War.