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Slavery; the condition of an individual who works for another individual against his or her will as a result of force, coercion, or imprisonment, regardless of whether the individual is paid for the labor.
The term involuntary servitude is used in reference to any type of slavery, peonage, or compulsory labor for the satisfaction of debts. Two essential elements of involuntary servitude are involuntariness, which is compulsion to act against one's will, and servitude, which is some form of labor for another. Imprisonment without forced labor is not involuntary servitude, nor is unpleasant labor when the only direct penalty for not performing it is the withholding of money or the loss of a job.
The importation of African slaves to the American colonies began in the seventeenth century. By the time of the American Revolution, the slave population had grown to more than five hundred thousand people, most concentrated in the southern colonies. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution did not specifically refer to slavery in the document they drafted in 1787, but they did afford protection to southern slaveholding states. They included provisions prohibiting Congress from outlawing the slave trade until 1808 and requiring the return of fugitive slaves.
Between 1820 and 1860, political and legal tensions over slavery steadily escalated. The U.S. Supreme Court attempted to resolve the legal status of African Americans in dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857). The Court concluded that Congress was powerless to extend the rights of U.S. citizenship to African Americans.
With the secession of southern states and the beginning of the Civil War in 1860 and 1861, the Union government was under almost complete control of free states. In 1865 Congress enacted the Thirteenth Amendment, which the Union states ratified. Section 1 of the amendment provides that "[n]either 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 gives Congress the authority to enforce the provisions of section 1.
The Thirteenth Amendment makes involuntary servitude unlawful whether the compulsion is by a government or by a private person. The penalty for violation of the amendment must be prescribed by law. Although the principal purpose of the amendment was to abolish African slavery, it also abolished other forms of compulsory labor similar to slavery, no matter what they are called. For example, it abolished bond service and peonage, forms of compulsory service based on a servant's indebtedness to a master.
An individual has a right to refuse or discontinue employment. No state can make the quitting of work a crime, or establish criminal sanctions that hold unwilling persons to a particular labor. A state may, however, withhold unemployment or other benefits from those who, without Just Cause, refuse to perform available gainful work.
A court has the authority to require a person to perform affirmative acts that the person has a legal duty to perform. It has generally been held, however, that this power does not extend to compelling the performance of labor or personal services, even in cases where the obligated party has been paid in advance. The remedy for failure to perform obligated labor is generally limited to monetary damages. A court may, without violating the Thirteenth Amendment, use its Equity authority to enjoin, or prevent, a person from working at a particular task. Equity authority is the power of a court to issue injunctions that direct parties to do or refrain from doing something. A court also may prevent an artist or performer who has contracted to perform unique services for one person on a given date from performing such services for a competitor.
The Thirteenth Amendment does not interfere with the enforcement of duties a citizen owes to the state under the Common Law. Government may require a person to serve on a petit or Grand Jury, to work on public roads or instead pay taxes on those roads, or to serve in the militia. Compulsory military service (the draft) is not a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, nor is compulsory labor on work of national importance in lieu of military service, assigned to conscientious objectors.
Forced labor, with or without imprisonment, as a punishment upon conviction of a crime is a form of involuntary servitude allowed by the Thirteenth Amendment under its "punishment-for-crime" exception.