William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal


Lea VanderVelde


This Article first takes a closer look at Blackstone’s chapter on master and servant. Second, it examines the anti-subordination agenda of the Reconstruction Congress, which abolished involuntary servitude and engaged in structuring a free labor system—a republican system of labor—to replace the slave labor system and to bring the freedmen into parity with their former masters. Third, this Article looks at how the courts interpreted the Thirteenth Amendment’s scope in the years immediately after its enactment. This Part demonstrates that the federal courts effectively closed off the path to develop the Thirteenth Amendment as an economic right by limiting the universe of rights to consist of only those that were civil or social rights. This Part also demonstrates how state courts viewed the Thirteenth Amendment quite differently, and analogized more broadly or narrowly, depending upon whether the court was in a Northern free state or a former slave state. Northern states were more willing to see the Thirteenth Amendment as a broad charter of labor freedom, while former slave states read the Amendment so narrowly as to limit its scope to merely abolishing the technical, legal status of chattel slavery.