Amendment XIII – Abolition Of Slavery (1865)

The amendment states:

“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.”

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution ratified on December 6, 1865, abolished slavery as a legal institution.  The primary purpose of the Amendment was to abolish the institution of African slavery as it had existed in the United States at the time of the Civil War, but the Amendment was not limited to that purpose.  The phrase “involuntary servitude” was intended to extend “to cover those forms of compulsory labor akin to African slavery which in practical operation would tend to produce like undesirable results.”  Involuntary servitude occurs when an individual coerces another into his service by improper or wrongful conduct that is intended to cause, and does cause, the other person to believe that he or she has no alternative but to perform the labor.  Involuntary servitude includes the concepts of obtaining labor by:

  • Threatening or using actual physical force
  • Threatening or using actual state-imposed legal coercion
  • Physically restraining or threatening to physically restrain another person
  • Destroying, concealing, removing, confiscating or possessing any actual or purported passport or other immigration document, or any other actual or purported government identification document, of another person
  • Blackmail
  • Causing or threatening to cause financial harm to any person

The Supreme Court has addressed issues that arise under the Thirteenth Amendment.  In United States v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931 (U.S. 1988), the Court explored the meaning of the term involuntary servitudeIn this case, two mentally challenged men in poor health was kept laboring on a farm.  The men worked seven days a week, 17 hours a day, initially for $15 per week and then for no pay at all.  Their employers used various forms of physical and psychological threats and force to keep the men on the farm.  The Court held that “involuntary servitude” requires more than mere psychological coercion; it also requires physical or legal coercion.  The Court observed that the Thirteenth Amendment was designed not only to abolish slavery of African Americans, but also to prevent other forms of compulsory labor similar to slavery.

The courts have found that religious sects may be guilty of subjecting an individual to involuntary servitude if the sect knowingly and willfully holds an individual against her will. (United States v. Lewis, 644 F. Supp. 1391 (W.D. Mich. 1986).  In addition, the courts held that the Thirteenth Amendment is violated if a mental institution requires inmates to perform chores which have no therapeutic purpose or are not personally related, but are required to be performed solely in order to assist in the defraying of institutional costs.  (Weidenfeller v. Kidulis, 380 F. Supp. 445 (E.D. Wis. 1974).

The courts have also held that State work programs do not constitute involuntary servitude because those programs are one valid way of encouraging the recipients of public assistance to return to gainful employment.  (Brogan v. San Mateo County, 901 F.2d 762 (9th Cir. Cal. 1990).  See Delgado v. Milwaukee County, 611 F.Supp. 278, 280 (E.D.Wisc.1985) (individual is under no compulsion to participate in general relief; state may establish conditions such as work relief for receipt of benefits, and no peonage results when no threat of penal sanctions for failure to abide by work relief rules). A federal court has held that a high school program that required all students to complete 60 hours of community service in order to graduate did not constitute involuntary servitude.  (Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School Dist., 789 F. Supp. 1337, 1345 (E.D. Pa. 1992).


Inside Amendment XIII – Abolition Of Slavery (1865)