It is commonly believed that after the onset of the Civil War, Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was the key driver to freeing the slaves of the south. After the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional amendments were passed which aided newly freed slaves in being equally treated under the law, or so the story goes. The fact of the matter is that even after the Emancipation Proclamation and after the amendments, slavery in the United States was still “legal” and not only that, but it took on a much different form.
The institution of slavery changed from having the direct enslavement of blacks, to the United States legal and prison system enslaving blacks. Yet, the enslavement itself was changed as black convicts were no longer slaves to individual masters, but rather they were enslaved to the companies in which they were leased out to. To create this system there not only had to be the involvement of the Southern judicial system and individual Northern and Southern elites, but also the involvement of the corporation and reinstitution of slavery within a corporate context.
This paper will examine our main focus—Was the US convict lease system “slavery” by another name? The affects of the Civil War were devastating to the Southern economy. Before the war, the South was the richest section of the country. Seventy five percent of American millionaires were Southerners and 24 of the 25 richest counties in the US were in the South. However, this was an economy built on the export of cotton harvested by an enslaved work force, and the Civil War destroyed all of this. First came the drastic drop in exports.
Initially the South voluntarily held back cotton, attempting to pressure Europe into intervening on their behalf. As time went by plantations also suffered from a dwindling workforce. Slaves during this time were extremely rebellious (keeping in mind they were legally free). Wherever the Union army went, slaves asserted their freedom. Hundreds of thousands of slaves ran off and left plantations understaffed and refused to work for their masters. This disruption continued into the post war era as the freedmen resisted returning to the plantations and tried to engage in small farming for their own subsistence.
So for five years the South was all but cut off from its main source of money. The South had been the wealthiest region of the country, however a lot of that wealth wasn’t liquid. It was instead tied up in two capital investments: land and slaves. After the war the land remained, although some of it was confiscated and turned over to the freedmen, and some never returned to full productivity. But the wealth invested in slaves and equipment for slaves all vanished. The emancipation proclamation and the 13th amendment destroyed massive amounts of Southern wealth without any compensation.
All the millions and millions of dollars invested in slaves basically went away. This was a major problem to southern elites and plantation owners. If you had something free in the past, how could you want to pay for it now? That question became the main fuel for the elites to venture new options. To fully understand the topic, we must examine the 13th amendment. It has been stated in history books and in classrooms across America that this amendment ended slavery, yet this is quite false. The 13th Amendment states:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. ” Interpreting this statement tells us that slavery is completely and totally legal if it is part (or the whole) of a punishment for someone who was convicted of a crime. When examining the context of this clause, many in Congress at the time say that they were not thinking of blacks or slaves, but rather white labor.
Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts said “The same influences that go to keep down and crush down the rights of the poor black man bear down and oppress the poor white laboring man. ” Senator Richard Yates of Illinois was much blunter, stating that he had “never had the negro on the brain” when discussing the amendment. But telling by the outcome of the 13th amendment, it is hard to believe that. Senator Wilson is correct to an extent when he argues that both slave and white labor are oppressed by the same system; both are oppressed in that they are being manipulated and played off one another by the elite of both the North and South.
However, Senator Wilson ignores the fact that white labor was very much less oppressed than black slave labor. White laborers were seen as human being, deserving of dignity and respect, rather than treated worse than animals. White laborers were free to do as they pleased, not having to worry about ensuring that they consistently had papers on their person as to prove their freedom. Instead of looking at the 13th amendment as freeing the slaves, we should examine it as a force that changed the competition between black slave labor and free white labor.
Since the South’s economy was built around slave labor and the ability to have the slaves produce more than they were ‘worth,’ seeing as how slaves were viewed as not just general property but a long-term economic investment. Yet, due to the existence of slavery, white labor suffered as not only did they lose out on the income they were making when slavery was first introduced as well as the potential future income, but also white labor was unable to make advances within the South as slavery provided a source of labor that was less expensive in the long-term.
This was a legitimate point as Senator Wilson goes on to say: “slavery was evil because it destroyed much of the richest land in the South; it degraded labor and the meaning of labor for poor white working men in the South; it robbed the South of culture by degrading the efforts of laborers; and it allowed southern aristocrats to further insult northern white workers by demeaning their laboring efforts as crabbed and mean.
Thus, slavery pulled white workers down in two ways: one, by direct competition with slave labor in the South, and two, by associating all the industrious efforts of workers with those of the degraded slaves. ” Yet, there was a difference of opinion in the minds of Southern elites who wanted to continue slavery, but on different terms. Looking at the social order at the time is important to understanding what is to come. While the slaves were now free and able to do as they pleased, there was still a deeply embedded racism within the minds of Southern whites.
Just because blacks had fought in the Civil War did not suddenly mean that the perception of blacks had changed; rather to the Southern elites, they still viewed blacks as inferior and only good for labor, longing to perpetuate the slave system but within a new industrial framework seeing as how the agricultural framework had been destroyed. This new system was to be found in through convict leasing. With the end of reconstruction and a change power in the South, the nature of both crime and punishment in the south changed dramatically.
State after state, new laws targeted blacks and effectively criminalized black life. Under new laws it was a crime for a farmer to walk on the side of a railroad, it was a crime to speak loudly in the company of white women, it was a crime to sell the products of your farm after dark; even small acts such as spitting on the sidewalk could lead to confinement. Some of these laws became known as the black codes. This was a time where many blacks ended up spending years in prison over sometimes non-existent, small, and even trumped up charges.
Charges that were previously misdemeanor level charges now were being enhanced to years of imprisonment. For example, theft of a pig worth approximately $1 carried a sentence for up to 5 years of imprisonment. Vagrancy was probably the biggest catch of them all, in every southern state, you were guilty of vagrancy if at any moment you could not prove that you were employed. These new laws changed statistics so now 9 out of every 10 arrests were black citizens. Southern states had a history of placing the convict with a company that would bear the cost of housing and feeding them in exchange for labor.
It became a steady process for southern prisons as they began leasing convicts monthly. The highest rates were for the strongest workers with the longest sentences. Once the states realized that prisoners could be a source of profit, it was only a short time for the leasing system to develop full fledge. Once the new revenue began coming in, the states began figuring out ways to gain even more. Alabama gained $14,000 in revenue its first year through convict leasing in 1874. By 1890, revenue was $164,000 (roughly 4.
1 million dollars today). All the states in the south from Texas to Florida to Virginia had some form of a convict lease system. More about the conditions of the cls These black convicts were being leased out all over the private sector. Businesses found that convict labor was 60-80% cheaper than free willed labor, and the convicts could be worked 6 days a week with minimal government oversight. From coalmines, to steel manufacturing, and even farming, convicts were being leased out on a consistent basis for revenue.
The most difficult problem resulted from the conflict between the profit motive of the contractors, who wanted to get the most labor possible from the prisoners at the least cost, and the interests of the state, which wanted at least a minimal effort to provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the prisoners. Because of this problem, the situation became worse for the laborers than slavery itself. With slavery, the owner has an invested interest in the well being of the slave. Slave owners wouldn’t want to work their slave to death because they have paid and invested a great deal of money into their ability to be productive.
However, with convict leasing, prisoners were completely disposable. A company could essentially work a laborer to their death, and they would simply be replaced with another convict laborer. This created extremely harsh working conditions for those involved in convict leasing. Blacks, many of them former slaves, were essentially re-enslaved but within the context of a corporate structure with an alliance between the state and the corporation. Yet, the judicial system was greatly involved in allowing this to occur.
As we see, in order to allow for the convict lease system to exist and for blacks to be reduced to their former state as a labor source, it required that the law limit the rights of blacks and criminalize black life to the point that blacks could be imprisoned on the most frivolous of offenses. Such laws took the form of Black Codes. Conditions of the convict lease system http://www. historyisaweapon. com/defcon1/fredouconlea. html http://www. tshaonline. org/handbook/online/articles/jnc01 convict lease story http://www. archives. alabama. gov/ahei/Convict_Leasing_in_Alabama_A_System_That_Re-Enslaved_Blacks_After_the_Civil_War_Nov_2011.
pdf http://www. usprisonculture. com/blog/2011/07/21/resistance-to-convict-lease-system-1-first-hand-accounts-by-women-reformers/ http://www. globalresearch. ca/slavery-by-a-different-name-the-convict-lease-system/31176 peonage When the fall cotton season came around there was an unually high amount of arrests Convict lease system was an example to make blacks feel that though they were not ready for freedom and could not handle the responsibility Many blacks were conspired against for peonage Sharecropping cost of financing (90% interest rate) put blacks in a situation were upward mobility was difficult