Skip to main content
Select Source:

peonage

peonage (pē´ənĬj), system of involuntary servitude based on the indebtedness of the laborer (the peon) to his creditor. It was prevalent in Spanish America, especially in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru. The system arose because labor was needed to support the agricultural, industrial, mining, and public-works activities of the conquerors and settlers in the Americas. With the Spanish conquest of the West Indies, the encomienda, establishing proprietary rights over the natives, was instituted. In 1542 the New Laws of Bartolemé de Las Casas were promulgated, defining natives as free subjects of the king and prohibiting forced labor. Black slave labor and wage labor were substituted. Since the natives had no wage tradition and the amount paid was very small, the New Laws were largely ignored. To force natives to work, a system of the repartimiento [assessment] and the mita was adopted; it gave the state the right to force its citizens, upon payment of a wage, to perform work necessary for the state. In practice, this meant that the native spent about one fourth of a year in public employment, but the remaining three fourths he was free to cultivate his own fields and provide for his own needs. Abuses under the system were frequent and severe, but the repartimiento was far less harsh and coercive than the slavery of debt peonage that followed independence from Spain in 1821. Forced labor had not yet included the working of plantation crops—sugar, cacao, cochineal, and indigo; their increasing value brought greater demand for labor control, and in the 19th cent. the cultivation of other crops on a large scale required a continuous and cheap labor supply. To force natives to work, the plantations got them into debt by giving advances on wages and by requiring the purchase of necessities from company-owned stores. As the natives fell into debt and lost their own land, they were reduced to peonage and forced to work for the same employer until his debts and the debts of his ancestors were paid, a virtual impossibility. He became virtually a serf, but without the serf's customary rights. In Mexico a decree against peonage was issued in 1915, but the practice persisted. Partly to alleviate it, Lázaro Cárdenas instituted the ejido in 1936. In that year, too, debt peonage was abolished in Guatemala. In the United States after the Civil War, peonage existed in most Southern states as it had in the Southwest after its acquisition from Mexico. Not only blacks and Mexicans but whites as well found themselves enmeshed. By 1910 court decisions had outlawed peonage, but as late as 1960 some sharecroppers in Southern states were pressured to continue working for the same master to pay off old debts or to pay taxes, which some states had levied to preserve the sharecropping system.

See L. B. Simpson, The Encomienda in New Spain (1950); J. F. Bannon, Indian Labor in the Spanish Indies (1966).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"peonage." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"peonage." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/peonage

"peonage." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved September 24, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/peonage

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Peonage

PEONAGE

PEONAGE is involuntary servitude, under which a debtor is forced to make payment to a master through labor. It differs from slavery, serfdom, and contract labor by both the necessary element of indebtedness and the indefinite term of service. Prior to 1800, the system was prevalent in Spanish America, especially Mexico and Guatemala. While not wholly confined to blacks in the United States, peonage developed in the South after the abolition of slavery in 1865, just as it had in the Southwest following its acquisition from Mexico. An employer paid fines imposed for a petty crime in exchange for work by the sentenced person. And when agricultural laborers and tenants were advanced cash and supplies, any attempt to leave was interpreted as having obtained credit under false pretenses, which, under state law, was a criminal offense.

Peonage did not lose its legal sanction until 1910, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared such state laws to be in violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments (Bailey v. Alabama,219 U.S. 219). In spite of the laws, as late as 1960, sharecroppers in the Deep South were pressured to pay off old debts or taxes through peonage. Peonage is interpreted in the Constitution (Title 18, U.S.C., Section 1581), as holding a person in debt servitude. This practice, though illegal, is being found again in the U.S. in relation to the smuggling of illegal immigrants into the country. The immigrants are then placed in garment "sweat shops" or other small businesses to work off their transportation debt. The current law states that those found enforcing peonage on another can be fined or imprisoned up to ten years.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Daniel, Pete. The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901– 1969. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Packard, Jerrold M. American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.

Karen RaeMehaffey

Rupert B. Vance

See alsoSharecroppers .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Peonage." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Peonage." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/peonage

"Peonage." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved September 24, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/peonage

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Peonage

PEONAGE

A condition of enforced servitude by which a person is restrained of his or her liberty and compelled to labor in payment of some debt or obligation.

cross-references

Involuntary Servitude.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Peonage." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Peonage." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/peonage

"Peonage." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved September 24, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/peonage

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Peonage

PEONAGE

Peonage is a system of debt bondage, in which a laborer is bound to personal service in order to work off an obligation to pay money. The system originated in the newly independent countries of Spanish America early in the nineteenth century, and in Hawaii and the Philippines later, as a substitute for various institutions used in the colonial era to marshal a labor force. In some of these countries the system continues to exist. In its classic form, peonage involves a trivial advance of money to a worker, in exchange for a contractual obligation to work for a term, or until the debt is repaid. From then on, the laborer is bound by law to serve the employer, and efforts to quit are met with the force of the state: arrest, imprisonment, return to the employer's service.

Peonage was also part of a larger system of involuntary servitude that emerged in the American South after the civil war. As such, though whites have sometimes been its victims, peonage has served as a substitute for black slavery. After the slave states were forced by emancipation to shift from a labor regime based on status and force to one of free labor based on contract and choice, peonage emerged as a system that hid the wolf of involuntary servitude in the sheep's clothing of contract.

Peonage as a customary system for coerced black labor had its origin in the contract-enforcement sections of the black codes (1865–1875) and other labor-related statutes of the era. These provided both civil and criminal penalties for breach of labor contracts, punished vagrancy, prohibited enticement of laborers from their jobs, and hampered or penalized agents inducing the emigration of laborers. Southern states also permitted the leasing of convict labor and adopted a criminal-surety system, whereby a person convicted of a misdemeanor would have his fine and costs paid by a prospective employer and then be obliged to work for the surety. Though the Black Codes were soon repealed, the freedmen ' sbureau at the same time emphasized labor contracts as the nexus of the employer-employee relationship for former slaves, and this later encouraged the use of contracts as a device for forcing black labor.

In 1867, when Congress enacted the Peonage Act to abolish peonage in New Mexico Territory, it also made it applicable to "any other Territory or State of the United States." The act made it a felony to hold a person in a condition of peonage, or to arrest a person for that purpose. It voided statutes and "usages" enforcing the "voluntary or involuntary service or labor of any persons as peons in liquidation of a debt or obligation, or otherwise."

United States District Judge Thomas G. Jones began the legal struggle against peonage in a vigorous grand jury charge, reported as The Peonage Cases (1903), defining peonage broadly as "the exercise of dominion over their persons and liberties by the master, or employer, or creditors, to compel the discharge of the obligation, by service or labor, against the will of the person performing the service." In Clyatt v. United States (1905), the Supreme Court upheld the use of the Peonage Act for the prosecution of a peon-master. Brushing aside both state action and dual sovereignty arguments, Justice david j. brewer found authorization for direct federal power over peonage in the enforcement clause (section 2) of the thirteenth amendment. But he also held that debt was the "basal fact" of peonage, thus limiting federal action to cases where an actual debt could be shown.

After publication of the "Report on Peonage" (1908) by the United States Department of Justice, prompted by discovery of occasional instances of white peonage (usually of immigrants), the Supreme Court, in bailey v. alabama (1911), used the Peonage Act to strike down Alabama contract-enforcement statutes that permitted quitting to be prima facie evidence of an intent to defraud the employer. The Court held that the Peonage Act voids "all legislation which seeks to compel the service or labor by making it a crime to refuse or fail to perform it." In United States v. Reynolds (1914), the Court invalidated Alabama criminal-surety statutes, describing the plight of a black peon caught in them as being "chained to an everturning wheel of servitude." But peonage has proved to be a remarkably tenacious form of servitude for blacks in the rural South, highlighted by the 1921 massacre of eleven black peons by their Georgia master, and by the establishment of peonage under federal and state auspices in refugee camps after the 1927 Mississippi River flood.

While physical force or threat of prosecution plainly constitute peonage, other forms of compulsion present interpretive problems. Thus subterfuges as well as outright violations of the Peonage Act persist into the present, despite the invalidation or repeal of the state labor-contract statutes that provided the original basis of peonage. The threat of deportation has proved an effective means of keeping alien migrant workers in a condition of involuntary or underpaid labor, and lower federal courts have divided as to whether this constitutes peonage.

William M. Wiecek
(1986)

Bibliography

Cohen, William 1976 Negro Involuntary Servitude in the South, 1865–1940: A Preliminary Analysis. Journal of Southern History 42:31–60.

Daniel, Pete 1972 The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901–1969. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Novak, Daniel A. 1978 The Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Peonage." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Peonage." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/peonage

"Peonage." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. . Retrieved September 24, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/politics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/peonage

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.