During the Civil War, President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all persons held as slaves in areas under rebellion are free from that point forward. The proclamation does not cover areas loyal to the Union. Lincoln uses his war powers as President to issue the proclamation, but members of Congress call for a constitutional amendment.
The Peonage Act is written to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on “involuntary servitude.” Under this law, no one in the United States can be forced to work against his or her 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 convicted of a crime.
The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which makes it a crime for the operators of hotels, theaters, and other public accommodations to discriminate on the basis of race. The Court holds that Congress does not have the power to enact this broad ban on the actions of a private person or business. The law cannot be justified under the Thirteenth Amendment because the amendment only bars slavery and involuntary servitude. The Court reasons that refusing to allow blacks to use hotels, restaurants, or other public accommodations is not a “badge of slavery.”
Sailors working on the commercial ship the Arago in California find themselves in jail when they try to quit. Local marshals bring them back to the ship and force them back to work. The sailors sue, claiming that the forced labor is a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on involuntary servitude. But, in Robertson v. Baldwin, the Supreme Court rules that there has not been a Thirteenth Amendment violation. The men had all signed employment contracts, so their labor is not “forced” and they have an obligation to complete the work they have contracted to do.
In a series of cases known as the Peonage Cases, the Supreme Court declares unconstitutional an Alabama law that allows landowners to force farmers to work off their debts or face criminal charges and possible prison. A number of sharecroppers (farmers who rent the land they farm) who have fallen behind in their payments to the landowners challenge the law as a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court agrees that this is involuntary servitude because the farmers are prevented from seeking other employment and thereby finding alternative ways of paying the debt.
In United States v. Reynolds, the Supreme Court finds unconstitutional an Alabama law that 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 works to pay off the debt. Finding that the law allows for “involuntary servitude,” the Court notes that the work required to pay the debt can be harsher than if the convict had been sentenced to imprisonment at hard labor in the first place.
In several consolidated cases, known as Arver v. United States, men who have been drafted into the military during the First World War challenge the government’s action as a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court finds that the Thirteenth Amendment does not protect citizens from mandatory military service in times of war.
In UAW v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Board, the Supreme Court decides that court orders requiring striking workers in labor disputes to return to work do not violate the Thirteenth Amendment. The Court finds that as workers have the right to quit their jobs, no involuntary servitude exists.
In Jones v. Mayer, the Supreme Court upholds an 1866 law that gives all persons regardless of race the right to buy and sell property. The Court holds that Congress as the power under the Thirteenth Amendment to prohibit private businesses from discriminating against people of color. The Court declares that the freedom that Congress is empowered to secure under the Thirteenth Amendment includes the freedom to buy whatever a white man can buy, the right to live wherever a white man can live. If Congress cannot say that being a free man means at least this much, then the Thirteenth Amendment made a promise the nation cannot keep.
Curt Flood, one of baseball’s top players, is traded to the Philadelphia Phillies without his consent and is not allowed to shop his talents to other teams in the league. Because Flood had the option to quit playing baseball altogether, the U.S. Supreme Court in Flood v. Kuhn denies his claim that the trade violates the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on involuntary servitude.
In Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District, a U.S. court of appeals rules that a high school community service requirement does not constitute involuntary servitude prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment. Growing numbers of school districts thereafter add community service to the requirements needed 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 here and abroad. The executive order establishes the Cabinet-level President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.