The Labor Vision of the Thirteenth Amendment

Source: Lea S. Vandervelde, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 138, No. 437, 2009

From the abstract:
The conventional understanding of the Thirteenth amendment is that it abolished the particular antebellum southern institution that subjugated black persons as slaves. Yet, the congressional debates reveal a much more expansive vision of labor reform. This theme has largely been lost in modern interpretation. Historical events rarely result from a single cause, and a single idea rarely drives legislative action. Nonetheless, beside the more religious abolitionist arguments, one finds numerous speakers who focused on labor conditions. Consequently, this Article aims to recapture the strong pro-labor theme that runs consistently through the debates.

As a whole, the Reconstruction debates reflect a desire to improve all workers’ status by recognizing the dignity of labor, guaranteeing workers a wide range of opportunities for advancement, and raising the floor of legal rights accorded all working men. The pattern of discourse in the debates reveal a structure formed by three types of statements. The first addresses the historical need to rid employment relations of the master’s patriarchal dominion over all laborers in his household and to accord the employee a realm of family and personal privacy free from employer control. The second describes the core concept of autonomy for laborers in their social and economic relations with employers. The final group targets certain specific labor practices as inconsistent with the spirit of labor autonomy. This three part configuration is useful in exploring the amendment’s reach in restructuring baseline rights in the modem employment relation. The Reconstruction debates constitute an important resource because they record the original attempt to mandate constitutionally a minimum level of worker protection.

Leave a Reply