CONSCRIPTS, CONVICTS, AND GOOD ROADS
THE Thirteenth Amendment had been a part of the U.S. Constitution for half a century when Jake Butler went to court to challenge his "involuntary servitude." Under Florida law, local authorities had called Butler out for his six days' annual labor on the county roads. Convicted of a misdemeanor when he failed to appear for the work, he appealed his conviction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court rebuffed his appeal. "From Colonial days to the present time," Justice James C. McReynolds wrote in the unanimous opinion, "conscripted labor has been relied on for the construction and maintenance of roads." The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 -- the source of the wording adopted in the Thirteenth Amendment -- outlawed involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime, he noted, yet the territorial legislature established road duty requirements. So did the states that subsequently arose out of the Territory. Constitutional changes of the 1860s had in no way curtailed the "essential powers" of "effective government," including the capacity to demand jury duty, military service, or road duty.
Transportation improvements included roads as well as railroads. Although court cases like Butler's in both North and South demonstrated opposition to what McReynolds termed "conscripted labor" (more often called "statute labor"), many states continued to make use of the labor tax into the twentieth century. At the dawn of the new century, a survey of Georgia's counties revealed that Murray County required an annual average of six days" "statute labor," as did Rabun, Habersham, Madison, and Fayette counties. Lincoln County, which required only two days' annual labor, suffered from poor roads; Polk, with ten days, and Randolph, with fifteen, sported good ones. Not until 1935 did Georgia terminate road duty as an obligation due the counties. And only in 1951 did the state repeal an Atlanta city charter provision requiring residents to work on the city streets each year or pay a commutation tax.