The Thirteenth Amendment of Our Aspirations

28 Pages Posted: 24 Sep 2007 Last revised: 27 Apr 2009

Date Written: April 23, 2009


In 1824, when two preachers from Southern Illinois squared off against each other to run for a Senate seat, both agreed that some forms of slavery were bad. The debaters agreed that "unmerited, involuntary, perpetual, absolute, hereditary slavery [was] contrary to, and a violation of the principles of nature, reason, justice, policy, and scripture." Such a thoroughgoing condemnation of slavery leaves one wondering whether they believed ordinary slavery was acceptable.

Was it only when slavery was simultaneously "unmerited, involuntary, perpetual, absolute, and hereditary" that it violated the many dimensions of goodness? If, for example, some circumstance of enslavement entailed only some of those attributes, was it then acceptable? Would slavery be acceptable if it was simply not perpetual, or simply not hereditary? The point is a simple one: when one condemns slavery by such an accumulation of negative attributes, it opens the possibility that society may tolerate slavery if it lacks simply one of these deplorable attributes. Thus, the preachers diluted their condemnation by modifying the subject with five different objectionable attributes.

Thirty years after the preachers debated the nature of slavery's ills, the Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery, period. (It also banned involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime.) However, over the 150 years since the Amendment's enactment, the conventional interpretation of the blanket prohibition of slavery under the Thirteenth Amendment seems to have devolved into the totality of the worst conditions of slavery extant in antebellum America.

My goal in this article is to sketch a much broader interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment, an interpretation of our aspirations of freedom in a carefully delimited, but expansive, rather than a restrictive, fashion. This is more than simply a rhetorical or grammatical exercise; it is fundamentally conceptual.

Keywords: Thirteenth Amendment, Free Labor, Liberty, Work, Labor, Constitution, Constitutional history, Reconstruction Amendments, Slavery, Abolition, Forced Labor, Opression, working conditions, Legal history, Servitude, Property, Constitutional theory

JEL Classification: J40

Suggested Citation

VanderVelde, Lea S., The Thirteenth Amendment of Our Aspirations (April 23, 2009). University of Toledo Law Review, Vol. 38, No. 3, 2007, U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-20, Available at SSRN:

Lea S. VanderVelde (Contact Author)

University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

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