Servitude and Captivity in the Common Law of Master-Servant: Judicial Interpretations of the Thirteenth Amendment's Labor Vision Immediately after its Enactment

35 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2019

Date Written: June 12, 2019

Abstract

In the 19th century, the American common law of master and servant was a system of subordination principles designed to command and capture the labor of workers. Blackstone’s Commentaries was the received common law, from the nation’s early days through the settlement of new states in the American West. Blackstone’s Chapter 14, organized the legal rules into a system of subordination as formal inequality. As the system’s foundation, Blackstone used slavery, rather than partnership or voluntary free labor. Thus, when the nation abolished slavery by the 13th Amendment, the structure’s foundation was implicitly undermined.

Moreover, during Reconstruction, the Radical Republicans, who dominated the post-War Congress, engaged in a sweeping anti-subordination agenda marked by multiple reform initiatives. Oppressive labor systems that they found to be slave-like were deemed “anti-republican.” An egalitarian, leveling ethos held sway as Reconstruction brought about a revolution in basic rights. Yet, this ethos did not find its way into a revision of all of the subordinating principles in the nation’s common law of master and servant. In the years immediately after its enactment, the anti-subordination agenda lost ground. The 13th Amendment was subject to different interpretations as state courts, analogized more broadly or narrowly, depending upon their state’s position as a former slave state or free state. As a result, the nation’s received common law was never completely reordered upon a new foundation of fully free labor.

Keywords: Labor Law, Legal History, Constitutional Law, Common Law, master and servant, slavery, 13th Amendment, anti-subordination

Suggested Citation

VanderVelde, Lea S., Servitude and Captivity in the Common Law of Master-Servant: Judicial Interpretations of the Thirteenth Amendment's Labor Vision Immediately after its Enactment (June 12, 2019). William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 27, Issue 4, Article 5; U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2019-18. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3403273

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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