Know Your Constitution — Slavery and the 13th Amendment

What a shocker! Though I shouldn’t be surprised. Like most Americans, I daydreamed my way through the classes that used to be called Civics. History of the US, its laws and the structure of its government. There’s no excuse for my ignorance except childish boredom and adult laziness.

There’s an upsurge lately in articles about slavery, thanks to two movies: Django Unchained, and Lincoln. The article on this morning’s Alternet grabbed me and I forgot everything else. The South’s Shocking Hidden History: Thousands of Blacks Forced Into Slavery Until WW2

“This is not an easy story for Americans to receive, much less accept. The idea that not just civil rights but basic freedom itself was denied to an enormous population of African Americans until the middle of the twentieth century fits nowhere in the triumphalist, steady-progress, greatest-generations accounts we prefer for our national narrative. That the thrilling events depicted in Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln—the heroic, frenzied campaign by Abraham Lincoln leading to passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery—were in fact later trumped not just by discrimination and segregation but by the resurrection of a full-blown derivative of slavery itself.

“This story of re-enslavement is irrefutably true, however. Indeed, even as Spielberg’s film conveys the euphoria felt by African Americans and all opposed to slavery upon passage of the amendment in 1865, it also unintentionally foreshadows the demise of that brighter future. On the night of the amendment’s passage in the film, the African American housekeeper and, as presented in the film, secret lover of the abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, played by the actress S. Epatha Merkerson, reads the amendment aloud. First, the sweeping banishment of slavery. And then, an often overlooked but powerful prepositional phrase: ‘except as a punishment for crime.'”

 “…except as a punishment for crime.” I have a vague memory of seeing a blog post or article some time back, claiming that slavery is still legal in the United States. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow it up. But I did this time. Here’s Section 1. of the 13th amendment to the 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.”Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

What does all this have to do with writing? Well, aside from my growing dedication to revealing the evils of slavery, it affects my still-unfinished novel, The Warden. The major premise of the book is that slavery has been instituted on an experimental basis, in just one state, as punishment for criminals who are three-time losers. I explain that a law had to be passed in order for this to happen. Now I know that such a law has always existed.

The potential for legal slavery has always existed in the United States. What circumstances might bring it back from the underground where it now exists? We are moving toward a chaotic future in which our ideas of freedom are already being overturned by government actions. What’s next?




4 thoughts on “Know Your Constitution — Slavery and the 13th Amendment

  1. It’s what they do in prisons. I think the association with slavery think is the whipping and slashing, and trade of people as property from one person to another; essentially, the ownership rule. Considering that only the government has the legal right to enforce punishment (as far as I know) this makes some sense. However, the Eight Amendment might play some role here.

    Good luck on working this in with your book. Most people have the same assumption you do, so maybe that can be part of a revelation in your tale (that the crime part still exists). 🙂

    1. Of course, as the rest of the article notes, *any* government that has the powers of law enforcement has the right to enforce slavery, even local governments. And yes, prison is often a form of defacto slavery.

  2. Except prisoners do have rights. As far as I know, slaves had none. That doesn’t change the fact that prisoners are used as free labor in the production of such things as cotton in Angola prison. Unfortunately you won’t get much sympathy when you’re talking about prisoners. Many people feel prisoners deserve whatever they get. Slaves had no choice and did nothing wrong in the first place. Doesn’t change the fact that many people are in prison today because of unfair laws and social conditions and so in a very subtle way the slaves system endures. That’s probably what your book is about and I commend you for tackling the subject.

    1. Yes, I’m afraid that too many people have a knee-jerk “Do the crime, do the time” mentality. And quite often prison labor, whether paid or free, is coercive because refusal can mean more severe conditions and treatment. Rights can very easily taken away, and often are, sometimes for no more reason than to exert power over another individual. Slavery is a complex issue, which is why I make a distinction between classic slavery and de facto slavery.

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