The 13th Amendment, one of the Reconstruction era amendments, abolished slavery.
The issue of slavery is a contentious one among the framers of the Constitution. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson offers a proposal in the Continental Congress to prohibit slavery in any new state after 1800. The Continental Congress defeats this measure by a single vote. It omits any mention of the issue when it sets up territorial governments in the Southwest.
From 1781 to 1785, states that owned lands in the west, including Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, gave their western land claims to Congress. Virginia gave the largest area, known as the Northwest Territories, which included the present-day states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as part of Minnesota.
In 1787, Congress adopts the Northwest Ordinance, which provides for governance of this area. The ordinance guarantees residents’ property rights as well as other rights such as trial by jury and freedom of religion. It also specifically prohibits slavery, although ordinance does not affect slaves already living there and does not prevent some slaveholders from bringing slaves into the Indiana and Illinois territories.
The Constitution is adopted on Sept. 17, 1787. Article I of the Constitution specifies that both the number of members of the House of Representatives from each state and the amount of direct taxes will depend on the number of citizens in each state. Members of the military are included in the count. Since slavery is legal and common, at least in the South, and the issue is very much a dividing line among the framers, the framers agree that slaves are not to be counted as full citizens. Known as the Three-Fifths Compromise, Article I, Section 2, counts each slave as three-fifths of a person for state representation. This provision was changed after the Civil War with the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed equal protection for all citizens against state actions and created voting rights.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands is established by Congress to provide help for tens of thousands of slaves who had been freed as well as impoverished white people. It provided food and clothing, ran hospitals and provided employment and legal help. The agency promoted education, including the creation of the first schools for African Americans, such as Howard University.
The U.S. Supreme Court decides the landmark Dred Scott v. Sandford case. Born a slave, Scott had lived with his owner in the slave state of Missouri. After his first owner died, he moved with his new one to the free state of Illinois and later to the free territory of Wisconsin. Several years later, after his second owner died, he returned to Missouri. In 1847, he sued for his freedom, pointing to the years he lived in free territories. Ten years later, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that slaves are property and have no right to sue. The Court says that people of African ancestry can never become U.S. citizens. It also invalidates the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which restricted slavery in certain territories. The Court further explains that slave owners cannot be deprived of their property (slaves) because citizens cannot be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law,” as established by the Fifth Amendment.
Congress abolishes slavery in the District of Columbia and in the rest of the territories, repeals the fugitive Slave Law, and frees African Americans who served in the Union armies.
President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all people held as slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union are free. The proclamation omits areas under Union control, including some areas of Louisiana, a few counties in Virginia, and all of Tennessee. The validity of this proclamation issued under the war powers of the president is questioned and will lead to proposal of the 13th Amendment two years later.
After the Civil War, white Southerners institute “black codes” that place significant constraints on the lives of newly freed slaves. Although the codes vary from state to state, they typically require African Americans to work; anyone found not working could be arrested for vagrancy. But the “black codes” also make it very difficult for former slaves to become self-sufficient. For example, some states prohibit former slaves from owning land or raising crops while others prevent them from living within certain towns or cities, marrying and voting. The “black codes” are similar to Jim Crow laws passed in the 1870s and 1880s. They will remain on the books in some places until the 1960s.
After being passed by Congress, the 13th Amendment is sent to the states on Feb. 1, 1865, for ratification. The amendment is ratified on Dec. 18, 1865, when Georgia becomes the 27th of 36 states to vote in favor of the amendment.
Congress passes Civil Rights Act of 1866 (now Title 42 U.S.C. 1981), which secures “to all citizens of every race and color, and without regard to previous servitude, those fundamental rights which are the essence of civil freedom, namely the same right to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to inherit, purchase, lease, sell and convey property, as is enjoyed by white citizens.” The federal law outlawed some of the racist state legislation that remained after the Civil War, including many states’ “black codes.”
The Peonage Act is passed to enforce the 13th Amendment’s ban on “involuntary servitude.” Under this law, people in the United States cannot be forced to work against their will, even if one person is indebted to another. In addition to physically restraining or harming someone, the use of threats to get someone to work is also illegal. This law does not apply to prisoners who have been convicted of a crime.
Four years after the end of the Civil War, the 15th Amendment, the final Reconstruction amendment, grants the right to vote to newly freed slaves and other men of color in the United States. The 15th Amendment provides: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
This act made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or previous servitude (that is, if a person had been a slave). Under this law, restaurants, theaters, hotels and other public places cannot refuse to serve people because of their race. The act also prohibits excluding people from juries because of race and previous servitude.
Sailors working on the commercial ship Arago in California find themselves in jail when they try to quit. Under the threat of returning them to jail, local marshals take them back to the ship and force them back to work. The sailors sue, claiming that forced labor is a violation of the 13th Amendment’s ban on involuntary servitude. But in Robertson v. Baldwin, the U.S. Supreme Court rules there is no 13th Amendment violation. Because the men had signed employment contracts, their labor was not “forced,” and they had an obligation to complete the work they had contracted to do.
In Hodges v. United States, three men were convicted of conspiring to drive African Americans from their jobs at a lumber mill by intimidation and threats in violation of federal law. When overturning the convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court explains that neither the 14th Amendment nor 15th Amendment gives Congress or any law enforcement officials the power to regulate purely private acts of discrimination. The Court also says that the 13th Amendment has no role in this case. Although the purpose of the 13th Amendment is to abolish forced labor, it does not give the Court the power to criminalize private actions that prevent citizens of African descent from making and carrying out labor agreements. Rather, the Court holds that the conspiracy charge is a state matter and not a federal government concern.
In Bailey v. Alabama the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down an Alabama law that allowed landowners to force farmers to work off their debts or face criminal charges and possible prison sentences. A number of sharecroppers (farmers who rented the land they farmed) had fallen behind in their payments to the land owners and challenged the law as a violation of the 13th Amendment. The Court agrees that this is involuntary servitude because the farmers are prevented from seeking other employment and thereby finding alternatives to paying the debt.
Lonzo Bailey agreed to work for a year as a farmhand for $144. His employer gave him $15 upfront and was to pay the rest in equal amounts each month. However, after one month, Bailey quit and his employer sued him for the $15 he had been paid. Under a new Alabama law, a worker who broke an employment agreement without just cause could be charged as if he had stolen money and would face fines and jail time. While the Alabama law was written to prevent fraud – taking money for work without any intention of completing the work – it also caught people who simply decided to change jobs or leave a job. In deciding Bailey v. State of Alabama, the Supreme Court said that forcing people to work against their will amounts to involuntary servitude and is prohibited by the 13th Amendment.
In United States v. Reynolds, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that an Alabama law violates the 13th Amendment. The law allows people to pay off the fines of someone convicted of a misdemeanor, thus freeing the convict from jail, on the condition that the convict work to pay off the debt. Finding that the law allows for “involuntary servitude,” the Court notes that the work required to pay the debt could be harsher than if the convict had been sentenced to imprisonment at hard labor in the first place. In later cases, the Court will declare similar laws in Georgia and Florida to be unconstitutional.
In several consolidated cases, known as Arver v. United States, plaintiffs challenge the government’s right to draft men for military service as a violation of the 13th Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the 13th Amendment does not protect citizens from mandatory military service in times of war.
In UAW v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Board, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that court orders requiring striking workers in labor disputes to return to work do not violate the 13th Amendment. The Court finds that because workers have the right to quit their jobs, there is no involuntary servitude.
In Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, the owners of a large motel in Atlanta, Ga., which restricts its clientele to white people, three-fourths of whom are transient interstate travelers, ask the courts to stop the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The hotel owners says Congress does not have the power to prohibit racial discrimination in places of public accommodation because neither the 13th, 14th, nor the 15th Amendment authorizes Congress to regulate private action. The owners also argue that the commerce clause (the phrase in the Constitution that gives Congress the power to regulate business transactions across state lines) does not include behavior such as this. In an important civil rights case, the Court here upholds the Civil Rights Act by finding that Congress can regulate hotels since interstate travel is “commerce.” At the same time, the Court finds that the race discrimination at issue here does not violate either the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause or the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on “involuntary servitude.”
In a companion case, Katzenbach v. McClung, restaurant owners challenge the power to prohibit discrimination in their establishments. Relying on its decision in Heart of Atlanta Motel, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Civil Rights Act finding that restaurants participate in interstate commerce.
In Jones v. Mayer, the U.S. Supreme Court overrules its 1906 decision in Hodges v. U.S and upholds as constitutional the 1866 Civil Rights Act that gave all people, regardless of race, the right to buy and sell property. The Court holds that Congress has the power under the 13th Amendment “to determine what are the badges … of slavery” and to prohibit private businesses and government from discriminating against African Americans and other people of color.
In City of Memphis v. Greene, the U.S. Supreme Court looks at the City of Memphis’ closing of streets in African American neighborhoods to avoid riots and determines that street closings for safety concerns is not a badge of slavery and thus there is no 13th Amendment violation in doing so.
After two mentally retarded men were found laboring on a farm in poor health, in unclean conditions and in relative isolation from the rest of society, their employers were charged with civil rights violations for conspiring to hold the men in involuntary servitude. The two men worked on the farm seven days a week, often 17 hours a day, at first for $15 per week and eventually for no pay. They were threatened with physical abuse and told that if they did not work, they would be sent back to an institution. A lower court found the employers guilty and defined involuntary servitude to include “psychological coercion.” In this case, United States v. Kozminski, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the convictions, finding that the lower court used the wrong definition of “involuntary servitude” when instructing the jury. The Supreme Court finds that “involuntary servitude” means “a condition in which the victim was forced to work by the use or threat of physical restraint or physical injury, or by the use or threat the law or the legal process.” However, because the evidence clearly shows that a conviction might be proper, the Court orders the lower courts to hold a new trial.
In Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rules that a high school community service requirement does not constitute involuntary servitude prohibited by the 13th Amendment. Growing numbers of school districts are adding community service requirements for a high school diploma.
Calling human trafficking “a modern-day form of slavery,” President George W. Bush signs a directive to crack down on those who deal in the buying and selling of people (usually in the sex trade industry) both in the United States and abroad. The executive order establishes a Cabinet-level Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
In United States v. Veerapol, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upholds a civil rights act conviction based on the 13th Amendment’s prohibition against involuntary servitude. The case involves a restaurant owner who recruited Nobi Saeieo, a Thai national, to work at her restaurant and home by offering her transportation from Thailand. Saeieo worked long hours, faced abuse and was isolated from any contact with the outside world. When she thought about leaving, Saeieo was threatened with deportation and other legal action. Such behavior is found to be in violation of the 13th Amendment.
In Wilbert v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, a bankruptcy court in Georgia states, as every court since 1954 has also done, that taxation is not a form of involuntary servitude prohibited by the 13th Amendment. The Court finds that “i]t is well-settled American jurisprudence that constitutional challenges to the IRS’ authority to collect individual income taxes have no legal merit and are ‘patently frivolous.'”
Mississippi ratifies the 13th Amendment 130 years after it was passed by Congress. Mississippi was among several of the 36 states that made up the Union in 1865 that initially refused to ratify the amendment because state lawmakers were angry they had not been reimbursed for the value of freed slaves.