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Volume 94, Number 6

December 2019

Mass Incarceration, Convict Leasing, and the Thirteenth Amendment: A Revisionist Account

James Gray Pope

Judging from present-day legal and popular discourse, one might think that the Punishment Clause of the Thirteenth Amendment has always had one single, clear meaning: that a criminal conviction strips the offender of protection against slavery or involuntary servitude. Upon examination, however, it appears that the Amendment’s Republican framers took an entirely different view. It was the former slave masters and their Democratic allies in Congress who promoted the interpretation that prevails today. From their point of view, the text clearly specified that, once convicted of a crime, a person could be sold into slavery for life or leased for a term at the discretion of state legislatures and officials. But contemporary Republicans emphatically rejected that reading. They held that convicted persons retained protection against any servitude that was inflicted not as a punishment for crime but for some non-penological end, such as raising state revenue, generating private profits, or subjugating black labor. Within a few months of the Amendment’s ratification, the Republican majority in the Thirty-Ninth Congress had outlawed the early, race-based forms of convict leasing. When that proved insufficient, the House passed a bill outlawing race-neutral convict leasing, which the Senate postponed when the focus of Republican strategy shifted to black voting rights. 

The Republican reading faded from view after the Democratic Party regained control of the Deep South. For several decades, white supremacist regimes incarcerated African-American laborers en masse and leased them to private employers without facing a serious Thirteenth Amendment challenge. Present-day scholars sometimes treat this silence as evidence that the Amendment authorizes such practices. Courts similarly honor the Democratic reading on the assumption it has always prevailed. So thoroughly has it triumphed that even prisoners’ rights advocates accept it as constitutional truth. 

Neither courts nor advocates have, however, taken into account the framers’ views. Their interpretation sank from sight not because it was wrong but because Democratic paramilitaries terminated Reconstruction, freeing states to expand convict leasing and insulate it against challenges, constitutional or otherwise. Had the Republican reading been enforced during the era of convict leasing, it might have prevented one of the most barbaric and shameful episodes in United States history. And perhaps, if revived today, it might yet accomplish similar results. Nothing in the text, original meaning, or Supreme Court jurisprudence of the Punishment Clause blocks that path.