While the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in rebel states in 1863, the ending of the Civil War did not automatically prohibit slavery. To do so required another act of government. The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, was officially announced on Dec. 18, 1865.
The Thirteenth Amendment says that:
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.
It was important not only to prohibit slavery, but also to prohibit slave-like conditions. Thus, the Amendment also prohibited involuntary servitude.
Unlike slavery, indentured servitude was not tied to race. It was common in colonial times for people of all backgrounds to be indentured for a period of time. One reason involved the many poor Europeans who wanted to immigrate, but did not have enough cash to pay for their passage to America. The availability of free or low-priced land, and the general shortage of labor, meant that many American businesses and farmers were generally shorthanded. However, keeping laborers was hard with so much opportunity. To compensate, employers would pay the passage of poor immigrants. In return, they were “indentured” to their new masters for a fixed period of time.
During their indenture, they could not leave their master, and if they ran away they were forcibly returned, just like slaves. Corporal (or physical) punishment was common.
In addition, young people were often indentured to a master to learn a trade. In return for being trained in a skill, they received room and board, but they had to agree to serve for a fixed period of time. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, was indentured to his brother to learn the printing trade (and he later famously ran away).
Finally, in some “free” states, indenture was used as a legal maneuver to allow slaves to cross into their slaveholders’ territory to work. In Indiana, for instance, some Kentucky slaveholders owned land across the Ohio River. To use their slaves to plant and harvest, they “indentured” them for a short period of time, with the contract requiring that they return to Kentucky (and into slavery) as part of their contract.
The Thirteenth Amendment, therefore, prohibited not only legal slavery, but also the quasi-slavery of indentured servitude.
- Can you imagine indenturing yourself to someone in exchange for learning a trade? For instance, if you were offered a contract to have your college paid, in return for working for a company a certain number of years, would you consider it?
- One of the motivations behind this system was that it was understood teenagers were hard for their parents to raise. Therefore, teenagers were sent to another household for their “finishing.” What do you think of such a system? Would you prefer to spend your high school years living with and working for someone other than your parents? Would they prefer that you did?