How the Constitution Established a New Slavery


Many highly educated and well-meaning people would say that the United States Constitution didn’t mention the word slavery when it was adopted in 1789. They would be right. But those that say that slavery was not in the Constitution in 1789 would be wrong. And those that say that the Constitution did not establish a new slavery would be wrong too! How can this be?

Articles 1 and 4 of the Constitution talk about slaves and slavery without using the words. You may see this at by clicking on The U.S. Constitution. But the 13th amendment to the Constitution does something very different. It was passed in 1865. That means it is a part of the Constitution. It not only mentions the word slavery but it says it can’t exist anywhere in the United States. But then it says “except as a punishment for crime…” Those few little words would come to mean a new slavery established by the same Constitution that abolished the old slavery.

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, and Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
— 13th Amendment

Confused? You wouldn’t be if you were a black man or woman in the southern states when slavery was abolished in 1865. This is how that goes. Congratulations! You’re free! Sorry! You’re under arrest! What is your punishment? According to the Constitution you may be held in slavery as punishment for your crime. A new slavery! And to be clear most of those arrested were former slaves. Many of them were turned into Unpaid Laborers by being convicted of sham crimes.

All over the south from Florida to Texas to Tennessee to Alabama prisons leased out “convicts” for money to work as nothing more or less than slaves. In 1898 73% of the state of Alabama’s total revenue came from leasing convicts. This practice started in Louisiana in 1844. It peaked in 1880 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially abolished it in 1941.

Douglas A. Blackmon is a writer and journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for his book, "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II". He said

“It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery – a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.”

Is slavery in the Constitution? You’d better believe it!