Status or condition of involuntary servitude in which one person must work for another in order to pay off a debt.
Despite the Thirteenth Amendment’s
The convict lease system
The convict lease system was exceedingly brutal. Leased convicts were subject to frequent whippings that rivaled the treatment of slaves in their viciousness. The prisoners lived in inhumane conditions and were worked ceaselessly, sometimes literally being worked to death. Indeed, the cruelty of the system is evidenced by its death toll reaching an average annual rate of 20 percent and in some places rising as high as nearly 50 percent.
Congress first acted against peonage by passage of the Peonage Act
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice David J. Brewer stated that the justices had no doubt that the Peonage Act was within Congress’s authority under the Thirteenth Amendment. Moreover, the Court held, the act could be applied to “any person holding another in a state of peonage,” even where the person acted pursuant to “a municipal ordinance or state law sanctioning such holding.”
The most important legal blow to peonage came six years after Clyatt in Bailey v. Alabama
By a vote of seven to two, the Court reversed Bailey’s conviction. The Alabama statute, the Court held, violated both the Peonage Act of 1867 and the Thirteenth Amendment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a vigorous dissent in which he argued that a criminal penalty for breach of a labor agreement was no more unlawful than was a civil damages action for such a breach.
The last peonage case to come before the Court was United States v. Reynolds
The Court’s three peonage decisions established that peonage violated the constitutional prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude. However, as important as these decisions are to the jurisprudence of the Thirteenth Amendment, the decisions had no discernible effect on the existence of peonage, as these exploitative labor practices continued long after the Court’s ruling in the Reynolds case.
Bickel, Alexander M., and Schmidt, Benno, Jr. The Judiciary and Responsible Government, 1910-21. New York: Macmillan, 1984. Daniel, Pete. The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972. Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Novak, Daniel. The Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1978.
Race and discrimination