Slavery by Any Name

By Rev. Matthew J. Watts | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), April 16, 2014 | Go to article overview

Slavery by Any Name


Rev. Matthew J. Watts, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the 1865 U.S. Congress and ratified by the states was supposedly intended to end slavery. It is arguably the most skillfully, cleverly and deceptively crafted sentence in the history of the English language in America. It also demonstrates the power of a few carefully written words. In only 18 words, Section 1 of the amendment both abolished and made slavery illegal in the United States. In the same sentence, a mere 14 words were used to explain the exception of when slavery could continue to be practiced, mainly by the U.S. Government. The text of Section 1 reads:

"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.

The question that screams for an answer is why would the architects of the 13th Amendment include an exception clause that would allow slavery to continue within the very text written to end slavery? The only plausible answer is that the 1865 U. S. Congress that passed the 13th Amendment and President Abraham Lincoln who aggressively lobbied for and signed it into law, wanted a contingency plan. The exception clause included in the 13th amendment would allow the government to use the criminal justice system to use slavery as a punishment for unruly former slaves. This would provide a system to continue to manage, control, and exploit the labor of black men in particularly and poor white men as well. This is not some outlandish preposterous conspiracy theory but it is actually supported by the historical record.

Douglas Blackmon's excellent book, "Slavery by Another Name, carefully chronicles how most Southern states reinstated a new form of slavery called convict leasing after the Reconstruction Era ended in the early 1870s. …

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