Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Section 1 of the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. Any law triggered by or expressly dependent on slavery no longer had force. Former slaveholders might continue to treat their former slaves as though nothing had happened, but the situation had changed. Abolition removed the powers that slaveholders had over their slaves, such as a right to use physical force--moderate correction. But abolition did not end racial prejudice.

Southern states adopted racially-discriminatory laws--restrictions on contract, property, and procedural rights--to compel the former slaves to remain in virtually the same position. States contended that these Black Codes did not constitute slavery or involuntary servitude because they did not impose all the characteristics of slavery.

Courts took a broader view of the essence of the prohibition, applying it even where the subjects retained some rights. For example, Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase, on circuit in 1867, struck down the discriminatory Maryland apprentice law as an involuntary servitude prohibited by the 13th Amendment. In the Slaughter-House Justice Miller pointed to Chase's decision to illustrate how the amendment reached involuntary servitude.

Nevertheless, the Court rejected arguments that would broaden involuntary servitude to apply to any restrictions on liberty. The plaintiffs in the Slaughter-House Cases argued that the slaughter-house monopoly created an involuntary servitude because it forced them against their will to use the sanctioned company. Justice Miller denied this interpretation of the amendment:

To withdraw the mind from the contemplation of this grand yet simple declaration of the personal freedom of all the human race within the jurisdiction of this government--a declaration designed to establish the freedom of four millions of slaves--and with a microscopic search endeavor to find in it a reference to servitudes, which may have been attached to property in certain localities, requires an effort, to say the least of it.

Scholars debate the breadth of the 13th Amendment's command, ranging from the view that it prohibits only slavery to contentions that a variety of constraints on individual choice constitute involuntary servitude. Thus far the Court has used section 1 of the 13th Amendment only for slavery or for involuntary servitude that was very close to slavery, like the Maryland apprentice laws and peonage in Alabama, and has turned a deaf ear to more extensive claims.