Kanye brought up the 13th Amendment—again. This time he was in the Oval Office, sitting across the desk from President Trump Thursday during a particularly surreal encounter.
With cameras clicking and boom microphones amplifying his every word, the controversial rapper, who wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat, unleashed another rambling rant:
“There are a lot of things affecting our mental health that makes us do crazy things that puts us back into that trapdoor called the 13th Amendment,” West said, as Trump sat across from him smiling.
“I did say abolish with the hat on because why would you keep something around that is a trap door?" West asked. “If you are building a floor — the Constitution is the base of our industry…. of our country… of our company. Would you build a trap door that if you mess up and you accidentally — something happens — and you fall, and you end up next to the Unabomber? You’ve got to remove the trapdoor out of the relationship—the 13th Amendment out of our relationship. The way the universe works is perfect. You don’t have 13 floors. Do we?”
The 13th Amendment, which was ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865, abolished slavery, declaring: “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.”
Earlier this month, West tweeted about the 13th Amendment and called for it to be abolished:
“This represents good and America becoming whole again,” he wrote. “We will no longer outsource to other countries. We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment. Message sent with love.”
Why anybody would want to abolish an amendment that freed enslaved people and was passed more than 153 years ago, has left some people confused.
Ava Duvernay directed the documentary “13th,” which traced the amendment’s “exception clause” from the era of convict leasing after the Civil War when black people convicted of even small crimes were forced to work on plantations to current mass incarceration and prison labor. She tweeted: “I’m consciously choosing to tweet about plant-based burgers and not current statements about the 13th Amendment from a certain MAGA follower. Respectfully, please don’t @ me. I can’t do nothing for him.”
Historian Arica L. Coleman watched West’s performance at the White House with astonishment.
“This man does not have a clue,” said Coleman, who is author of “That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.” “Kanye is an entertainer…. What he is saying is in the guise of history—in the guise of facts. These are alternative facts, which means no facts at all.”
Passage of the 13th Amendment was actually prompted by the Emancipation Proclamation, “which was done as a military necessity," Coleman said. "Lincoln did not issue the Emancipation on moral grounds. It did not free all the slaves.”
According to the National Park Service, Lincoln issued a warning on September 22, 1862, announcing he would issue an "Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that enslaved people in states or areas of ‘rebellion against the United States’ would be free effective on January 1, 1863.”
No Confederate states heeded Lincoln’s demand, so the president made good on his threat. “After standing in line for hours to greet the customary New Year’s Day visitors at the White House, Abraham Lincoln retired to his office upstairs at the Executive Mansion and signed the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation," according to the Park Service account.
"His hands were tired and trembling from shaking so many hands, and as he prepared to sign the document, he paused to let the quivering subside, and declared, as if to reinforce his resolve, ‘I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper...if my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.’ Lincoln affixed a steady signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, completing what he would later call the great event of the nineteenth century.”
The final Emancipation Proclamation was issued Jan. 1, 1863, targeting areas in rebellion, excluding areas that were controlled by the Union army.
“The document notably excluded the so-called border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, where slavery existed side by side with Unionist sentiment,” the Park Services explains. "In areas where the U.S. government had authority, such as Maryland and much of Tennessee, slavery went untouched. In areas where slaves were declared free - most of the South - the federal government had no effective authority.”
When the Civil War ended May 9, 1865, the issue of slavery was still unclear.
“The reason you needed the 13th Amendment was because after the Civil War, the question came up about whether the Emancipation Proclamation was legally binding,” Coleman said. “Could this apply to children of slaves? There were a lot of questions. The 13th Amendment was created to put the question of slavery to rest once and for all.”
It almost didn’t pass. The Steven Spielberg 2012 film “Lincoln” recounted the president’s complicated maneuvering to push the 13th Amendment through the House.
But the film skipped the debate that preceded it in the Senate. “While Lincoln waited until late 1864 to publicly support an abolition amendment (while quietly supporting it behind the scenes), Radical Republicans like Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner and Ohio representative James Ashley called for such action in 1863," a Senate history explains . "Sumner and his allies applauded Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but they believed the wartime measure did not go far enough. Instead, they demanded what they termed a ‘constitutional guarantee’ of ‘perpetual freedom.’ Such debates—barely hinted at in the movie—shaped the language of the amendment and influenced an evolving definition of equality.”
On April 8, 1864, according to the Library of Congress, the Senate passed the 13th Amendment on a 38 to 6 vote.
But on June 15, 1864, it was defeated in the House on a 93 to 65 vote. With 23 members of Congress not voting, it failed to meet the two-thirds majority needed to pass a Constitutional amendment.
In his message to Congress on Dec. 6, 1864, Lincoln bemoaned the fact the House had failed to pass the amendment.
“At the last session of Congress a proposed amendment of the Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the United States, passed the Senate, but failed for lack of the requisite two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives," Lincoln wrote. "Although the present is the same Congress, and nearly the same members, and without questioning the wisdom or patriotism of those who stood in opposition, I venture to recommend the reconsideration and passage of the measure at the present session.”
In January 1865, the amendment was debated again in the House, and Lincoln pushed hard for passage.
One congressman later quoted Lincoln as telling him, “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.”
On Jan. 31, 1865, the House finally passed the 13th Amendment on a 119 to 56 vote.
The next day, Lincoln submitted the proposed 13th Amendment to the states. A change to the Constitution must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Twenty -seven of the then-36 states voted in favor of the amendment. The holdouts included Delaware, which didn’t ratify the 13th Amendment until 1901; Kentucky, which didn’t embrace it until 1976, and Mississippi, which waited until 2013 to officially embrace the end of slavery.
The amendment was added to the Constitution on Dec. 18, 1865. By then, Lincoln had been assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
Some people following West’s commentary assume that his comments are not directed at the whole 13th Amendment, but rather the the amendment’s “exception clause,” which exempts those convicted of a crime from being free of slavery.
The clause prohibits slavery or involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
“They used the words, except for prison,” Coleman said, “which leads people to say we went from the prison of slavery to the slavery of prison. What Kanye is doing is drawing a straight line from the 13th Amendment to mass incarceration to the 1994 crime bill under the Clinton Administration...but it is not a straight line from the 13th Amendment to the crime bill, and Kanye is not an expert.”
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