Convict Lease System

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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...
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