On this date in 1865, the following statement was entered into the public record:

Now, therefore, be it known that I, William H. Seward, Secretary of State of the United States, by virtue and in pursuance of the second section of the act of Congress approved the 20th of April, 1818, entitled “An Act to provide for the publication of the laws of the United States and for other purposes,” do hereby certify that the amendment aforesaid HAS BECOME VALID TO ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES AS A PART OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES.

The “amendment aforesaid” was the thirteenth such alteration to the United States Constitution and the first since the administration of Thomas Jefferson — a slaveholder whose envisioned “Empire for Liberty” had recently been cut from sternum to pelvis by four years of war. Seward’s announcement was in most respects anticlimactic; the eradication of slavery was a near-universal fact throughout the country by late 1865, with former slaves themselves taking the lead in its demolition. Begrudgingly, in areas of the South under Union control, former masters had generally acknowledged the reality of emancipation, though many had hoped in vain that the US Supreme Court might eventually nullify Lincoln’s wartime proclamation, thus leaving the door open for gradual, compensated emancipation or — even better — the retention of the peculiar institution in all but name.

With the appointment of Salmon Chase to the Court in December 1864, however, those fantasies dissipated. Chase was Lincoln’s fifth appointment to the bench, and it virtually assured that his policies would survive any constitutional scrutiny. Political events as well that fall seemed to indicate that slavery would continue to wither as the war itself drew to a close. At the state level, new constitutions brought immediate emancipation to tens of thousands of border state slaves. Maryland ended two and a half centuries of chattel bondage on November 1; Missouri would follow in early January 1865. Pro-slavery advocates in Kentucky and Delaware resisted similar efforts in their own states, but they were clearly staring into a headwind. In November 1864, voters throughout the country elected a House of Representatives with a massive Republican majority — 136 out of 193 members — sufficient to ensure the passage of an amendment that would officially transform a pro-slavery Constitution into an anti-slavery Constitution. The amendment to abolish slavery had narrowly failed in the House in early 1864. Now, however, at Lincoln’s urging, the lame-duck 38th Congress finally passed it, 119-56, with the support of fifteen Democrats, including James Guthrie of Kentucky, an erstwhile opponent of the amendment. (Guthrie would later oppose the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Freedman’s Bureau, demonstrating that for many Congressmen, abolishing slavery was quite literally the least they could do on behalf of African American freedom.)

Lincoln quickly signed the amendment and watched approvingly as 21 states ratified it; among them was Louisiana, which had recently held free elections, rewritten its constitution, and accepted the Thirteenth Amendment on February 17, 1865. The President would trumpet Louisiana’s transformation on April 11, when he delivered the last speech of his life. Three days later, a few hours prior to his assassination, Lincoln would likely have received word that Arkansas as well had adopted the Thirteenth Amendment, leaving it six states shy of ratification. Over the next few months, the pace of the amendment slowed. Union states like Iowa, California, and Oregon were slow to move on the issue, while New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky openly rejected the amendment. In November and early December, the new state governments in South Carolina, Alabama, and North Carolina accepted the amendment, and on December 6, Georgia — originally been settled in 1733 as a slave-free colony — unofficially ended slavery throughout the US.

Twelve days later, Seward announced the validity of the Thirteenth Amendment. That same day, a former Republican congressman named Thomas Corwin died in Washington, D.C. Corwin, an Ohioan and ex-Whig, had sponsored an amendment in early 1861 that — had it been ratified by the states — would itself have been the Thirteenth Amendment. The Corwin Amendment, as it was generally known, was part of a final effort among Northern and border state political leaders to capitulate to the demands of slaveholders and to bring back the original seven states of the confederacy. Passed by a single vote in Congress, the amendment nevertheless failed to win ratification from any state but Ohio and Maryland. The stillborn Corwin Amendment would have protected the “domestic institutions” of the states, including the rights of white people to own black people.

The eradication of those “rights” would require a war of unprecedented carnage and an effectively rewritten Constitution, but the Thirteenth Amendment was merely the starting point of a much longer national struggle over the question of how to define citizenship in a world without slavery. “Verily,” noted Frederick Douglass, “the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.”