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 Though the Black Codes were soon repealed, the freedmen ' sbureau at the same time emphasized labor contracts as the nexus of the employer-employee relationship for former slaves, and this later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
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.
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.
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.
Rupert B. Vance
See alsoSharecroppers .
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.