United States Constitution

PREAMBLE : We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution



The Thirteenth Amendment

Text of Constitution:

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.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The 'Travis Translation' of Constitution:

Slavery no longer exists in the United States or any place the United States controls. No one is forced to work for anyone else for no pay, except as punishment for a crime in which the criminal has been convicted by a court of law.

Congress has the power to enforce this amendment with laws.

The Abolition of Slavery Important Cases
The 13th Amendment is clear and limited: “Neither slavery not involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States of any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The federal government is charged with enforcing this guarantee: “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Fundamentally, the 13th Amendment is about slavery. The first of the three amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War (known collectively as the ‘Reconstruction Amendments’), this simply codified the Emancipation Proclamation, that wartime declaration made by Abraham Lincoln in which he freed the slaves.

The history of litigation and Supreme Court opinions on this amendment have been similarly limited. Essentially, it bans things like slavery and forced labor which, though obviously no longer as widespread in the United States as before the Civil War, are still raised by human rights activists in the modern era. Still, the scope of the amendment is focused and directed.

It should also be noted that this amendment, unlike the 14th Amendment, for example, reaches private actors, and goes beyond only prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude caused by government action.

Constitutionality of the Draft Important Cases
For example, in Arver v. United States (1918), also referred to as the “Selective Draft Law Cases” (because it was actually a consolidation of multiple cases on this issue), the Court examined whether the Selective Service, or mandatory military conscription (aka, the draft), was constitutional. The argument made by the plaintiffs in that case was that the Selective Service Act of 1917, authorizing conscription to raise an army in the face of World War I, was a violation of the 13th Amendment. The Court, however, rejected that assertion, calling military service, the “supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people.”

This notion of ‘duties’ incumbent upon the people is also echoed in an earlier case, Butler v. Perry (1916). There, the state of Florida required adult males to labor for the state and help with the building of roads and bridges. These “able-bodied” men could either work, or pay a $3 sum to get out of duty. But ignoring the mandate resulted in up to 30 days in jail or upwards of a $50 dollar fine. Here, again, the Court decided that “duties which individuals owe to the state” were not meant to be prohibited by the passage of the 13th Amendment. The Court held that Florida’s mandate was constitutional.

 Butler v. Perry (1916)

Arver v. United States (1918)
Badges of Slavery Important Cases
However, though the 13th amendment has historically been narrowly construed, the Supreme Court, from time to time, has allowed a broader reading of its guarantees. This broadening, including what are known as “badges of slavery,” originally stems from the Civil Rights Cases (1883) and Plessy v. Fergusun (1896) (see Equal Protection Clause for a more in-depth explanation of these cases and their impact). In the Civil Rights Cases and Plessy, the Court addressed the suggestion that the 13th Amendment should not only prohibit slavery, but allow Congress to prohibit other acts of discrimination that rose to the level of so-called ‘badges of slavery.’ While the majorities in these cases conceptually agreed that ‘badges’ and ‘incidents’ of slavery could be prohibited by Congress, practically, they ruled that such actions were really not much beyond slavery itself – meaning, acts of discrimination did not fall under the umbrella of the 13th Amendment.

Despite this, however, some 20th century cases have revived the idea of badges of slavery including some types of discrimination, and acknowledged this somewhat more expansive reading of the 13th Amendment. For example, in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968), the plaintiff asserted that the defendants’ refusal to sell him a home solely on the basis of race was a badge of slavery and therefore unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment. There, the Court agreed.

Still, however, as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment (Section 1) prohibits certain government classifications of suspect classes, including of African Americans – and additionally, states have passed many of their own anti-discrimination laws, the 13th Amendment is still rarely used (and rarely needs to be used) to fight discrimination.

 Civil Rights Cases (1883)

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968)

Palmer v. Thompson (1971)

Memphis v. Greene (1981)