Thirteenth Amendment, Section 1:
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.
Notwithstanding its early acknowledgment in the Slaughter-House Cases that peonage was comprehended within the slavery and involuntary servitude proscribed by the Thirteenth Amendment,1 the Court has had frequent occasion to determine whether state legislation or the conduct of individuals has contributed to re-establishment of that prohibited status. Defined as a condition of enforced servitude by which the servitor is compelled to labor against his will in liquidation of some debt or obligation, either real or pretended, peonage was found to have been unconstitutionally sanctioned by an Alabama statute, directed at defaulting sharecroppers, which imposed a criminal liability and subjected to imprisonment farm workers or tenants who abandoned their employment, breached their contracts, and exercised their legal right to enter into employment of a similar nature with another person. The clear purpose of such a statute was declared to be the coercion of payment, by means of criminal proceedings, of a purely civil liability arising from breach of contract.2
Several years later, in Bailey v. Alabama,3 the Court voided another Alabama statute that made the refusal without just cause to perform the labor called for in a written contract of employment, or to refund the money or pay for the property advanced thereunder, prima facie evidence of an intent to defraud, and punishable as a criminal offense, and that was enforced subject to a local rule of evidence that prevented the accused, for the purpose of rebutting the statutory presumption, from testifying as to his
uncommunicated motives, purpose, or intention. Because a state
may not compel one man to labor for another in payment of a debt by punishing him as a criminal if he does not perform the service or pay the debt, the Court refused to permit it
to accomplish the same result [indirectly] by creating a statutory presumption which, upon proof of no other fact, exposes him to conviction.4
In 1914, in United States v. Reynolds,5 a third Alabama enactment was condemned as conducive to peonage through the permission it accorded to persons, fined upon conviction for a misdemeanor, to confess judgment with a surety in the amount of the fine and costs, and then to agree with said surety, in consideration of the latter’s payment of the confessed judgment, to reimburse him by working for him upon terms approved by the court, which, the Court pointed out, might prove more onerous than if the convict had been sentenced to imprisonment at hard labor in the first place. Fulfillment of such a contract with the surety was viewed as being virtually coerced by the constant fear it induced of rearrest, a new prosecution, and a new fine for breach of contract, which new penalty the convicted person might undertake to liquidate in a similar manner attended by similar consequences.
Bailey v. Alabama was followed in Taylor v. Georgia6 and Pollock v. Williams,7 in which statutes of Georgia and Florida, not materially different from the one voided in Bailey, were held unconstitutional. Although the Georgia statute prohibited the defendant from testifying under oath, it did not prevent him from entering an unsworn denial both of the contract and of the receipt of any cash advancement thereunder, a factor that, the Court emphasized, was no more controlling than the customary rule of evidence in Bailey. In the Florida case, notwithstanding the fact that the defendant pleaded guilty and accordingly obviated the necessity of applying the prima facie presumption provision, the Court reached an identical result, chiefly on the ground that the presumption provision, despite its nonapplication,
had a coercive effect in producing the plea of guilty.
Pursuant to its section 2 enforcement powers, Congress enacted a statute by which it abolished peonage and prohibited anyone from holding, arresting, or returning, or causing or aiding in the arresting or returning, of a person to peonage.8
The Court looked to the meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment in interpreting two enforcement statutes, one prohibiting conspiracy to interfere with exercise or enjoyment of constitutional rights,9 the other prohibiting the holding of a person in a condition of involuntary servitude.10 For purposes of prosecution under these authorities, the Court held,
the term ‘involuntary servitude’ necessarily means a condition of servitude in which the victim is forced to work for the defendant by the use or threat of physical restraint or physical injury, or by the use or threat of coercion through law or the legal process.11