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Peonage

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Description: Status or condition of involuntary servitude in which one person must work for another in order to pay off a debt.


Significance: After the Civil War, employers in the rural South used a number of labor practices that had the effect of relegating many African Americans to a state of virtual slavery. In three cases decided between 1905 and 1914, the Supreme Court ruled that these practices violated the Thirteenth Amendment.


Despite the Thirteenth Amendment's command that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime…shall exist within the United States,” forced systems of labor came to dominate the market for African American workers after the Civil War. There were three principal systems or practices used: black codes, sharecropping, and the convict lease system. Black codes were laws passed in most of the southern states between 1865 and 1866 that applied only to African Americans. Under the codes, African American men who were unemployed or without a permanent residence could be arrested, charged, and fined as vagrants. A person convicted of vagrancy could avoid jail only by contracting to work for a private employer, who would then pay the person's fine. If the person quit his job before his contract term expired, he would be arrested and returned to the employer. The codes gave the employers the right to use physical force to discipline contract workers.


Sharecropping

Along with the contract labor system that developed under the black codes, the southern states also used a system of farm tenancy known as “sharecropping.” Although the sharecropping system exploited poor whites as well as African Americans, an overwhelming number of sharecroppers were African Americans. Under this system, a farmer leased a plot of land from a plantation owner. As rent for the land, the sharecropper-farmer agreed to pay the planter a certain portion of the cotton crop produced at the end of the harvesting season. However, the sharecropper was also compelled to purchase all seeds, food, clothing, and other necessities from the planter's store. These purchases were usually made on credit, at extremely high interest rates. Moreover, the planter determined how much crop the sharecropper had produced and what that crop was worth. The sharecropper was rarely able to pay what was owed for items purchased from the store and the rent for the leased land. As a result, year after year, the sharecropper had no choice but to purchase more items on credit. Sharecroppers caught up in this continuous cycle of debt soon found themselves in a position that came to be known as “debt peonage,” in which the sharecropper was required by law to work for the planter until the debt was paid off an event that never occurred.


Convict Lease System

The convict lease system was perhaps the most exploitative of the peonage practices. Under this system, a person convicted of a crime would be loaned out by the state to work for a private employer. The employer would pay the state a fee for each convict worker. The demand for leased convict workers was nearly insatiable, and states received large amounts of revenue from the leasing system. As a result, large numbers of people became ensnared in the southern criminal justice system. The overwhelming majority of these people were African American men, most of whom had been convicted of petty offenses such as vagrancy or on trumped-up charges. The convict lease system was exceedingly brutal. Leased convicts were subject to frequent whippings that rivaled the treatment of slaves in their viciousness. The prisoners lived in inhumane conditions and were worked ceaselessly, sometimes literally being worked to death. Indeed, the cruelty of the system is evidenced by its death toll reaching an average annual rate of 20 percent and in some places rising as high as nearly 50 percent.


Congress and the Court Act

Congress first acted against peonage by passage of the Peonage Act of 1867. Under the act, any person who held another in peonage was subject to a fine and term of imprisonment. In Clyatt v. United States (1905), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act. The case involved the conviction of Samuel M. Clyatt who, in 1901, led a party of three armed white men into Florida and took back to Georgia two black men to work off debts that Clyatt claimed the men owed him. In arresting the two men, Clyatt acted under the authority of Florida law. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice David J. Brewer stated that the justices had no doubt that the Peonage Act was within Congress's authority under the Thirteenth Amendment. Moreover, the Court held, the act could be applied to “any person holding another in a state of peonage,” even where the person acted pursuant to “a municipal ordinance or state law sanctioning such holding.” The most important legal blow to peonage came six years after Clyatt in Bailey v. Alabama (1911). In Bailey, the Court held that Alabama could not punish a person for breaching a labor contract. The case arose from the conviction of Alonzo Bailey under an Alabama statute that made it a crime to enter into a labor contract with the intent to defraud the employer. Under the statute, breach of the contract was prima facie evidence of the intent to defraud. Because Bailey had quit his job, the Alabama court held that this was sufficient evidence of his intent to defraud his employer at the time Bailey had entered into the contract. By a vote of seven to two, the Court reversed Bailey's conviction. The Alabama statute, the Court held, violated both the Peonage Act of 1867 and the Thirteenth Amendment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a vigorous dissent in which he argued that a criminal penalty for breach of a labor agreement was no more unlawful than was a civil damages action for such a breach. The last peonage case to come before the Court was United States v. Reynolds (1914). In this case, the justices unanimously struck down Alabama's criminal surety law. Under such laws, which many southern states had enacted, convicts were released from jail to a private employer. The employer paid the convict's fine, in exchange for which the convict entered into an agreement to work for the employer for a fixed term. If the person quit his job before the term of the surety contract expired, he was subject to additional criminal penalties. In an opinion by Justice William R. Day, the Court held that state surety laws violated the Thirteenth Amendment and the Peonage Act. The Court's three peonage decisions established that peonage violated the constitutional prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude. However, as important as these decisions are to the jurisprudence of the Thirteenth Amendment, the decisions had no discernible effect on the existence of peonage, as these exploitative labor practices continued long after the Court's ruling in the Reynolds case.



Further Reading

  • Bickel, Alexander M., and Schmidt, Benno, Jr. The Judiciary and Responsible Government, 1910-21. New York: Macmillan, 1984.
  • Daniel, Pete. The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.
  • Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Novak, Daniel. The Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1978.