One hundred forty-nine years ago, on December 6, 1865, Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and slavery formally ended. The amendment was a remedy for 250 years of enslavement forced primarily upon a specific group of people on the shores of what was now called, the United States of America. Perhaps, equally important, passing the 13th Amendment helped to reconcile inconsistencies that were forged into our founding documents about: who we are as a nation, who we are as a people and how we wished to define ourselves as individuals.
No one did more to characterize America, Americans and the American spirit than Thomas Jefferson did when he famously stated, in the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal." Considering the obvious incompatibility of slavery with the concept of a people "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," it's reasonable to assume that Jefferson would have denounced the colonies' ongoing slave trade, within the same document. In fact, he did just that with his original draft of the Declaration of Independence by calling slavery a "cruel war against human nature itself." In the final version, however, any mention of slavery was edited out to make the Declaration acceptable to slave states. It would be easy to view such an historic failure as a simple matter of the bad guys taking one from the good guys, but that would be wrong because our history is rarely simple. Jefferson himself embodied the insidious and complex nature of slavery by being both a champion of personal freedoms and a life long enslaver. What counts is that the 13th Amendment finally made it possible for us to be a nation where all men were perceived as being created equal.
Another founding document that was influenced by the industry of slavery in this newly formed nation was the Constitution. Though not mentioned by name, slavery lived within that document. The three-fifths compromise of the Constitution allowed slave states to count each enslaved person, for the purposes of federal representation, as three-fifths of a person. A compromise on the importation of enslaved individuals was also reached allowing Congress to impose a ban by 1808 (21 years after the Constitution was ratified). The fugitive-slave law (enforced through legislation of 1793 and 1850) allowed owners to pursue and capture freedom-seeking, formerly enslaved individuals outside of their home state (including free states after 1850). All of these Constitutional compromises were voided by the 13th Amendment: every person would henceforth be considered a whole person; never again could the forced importation of individuals be allowed and, with the abolition of slavery, no person could ever be returned to their owner as no person could be owned by another. The 13th Amendment restored the founding ideal "that all men are created equal" (as are women!) at least under the law. Nearly one hundred and fifty years later, we may ask whether or not the letter and the spirit of the law are still being enforced or if, once again, people are falling victim to compromise.
This might be a good time to look at the full text of the 13th Amendment:
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.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Is there still slavery within the United States? The answer is YES. We know that people are currently being bought and sold for sex in the U.S. This is a form of slavery that flourishes. People are also being forced to work for little or no pay in factories, fields and various businesses. There are also domestic workers trapped and isolated in homes in parts of the country. This kind of exploitation must be confronted by law and, perhaps, with the 13th Amendment.
Is it possible that the U.S. is responsible for slavery in other countries? Again, the answer is YES. Over the last few decades, the nature of how products are produced -- the ones that we use every day - has changed. Large American corporations often set-up manufacturing facilities in other countries or contract with foreign companies because the cost of labor is cheaper in places like China, Bangladesh and Mexico than it is in the United States. Cheap labor equals lower-priced goods and higher profits for the companies that sell them. Unfortunately, the never-ending competition to sell more products and generate higher profits can translate into unfair and unsafe labor practices. In fact, some of the products we're using now were produced by slave labor. Take a look at two lists provided by the U.S. Department of Labor:
So, what can be done?
A good place to start is with Jefferson's ideal "that all men are created equal." If the 13th Amendment prohibits slavery "within the United States, or anywhere subject to their jurisdiction", shouldn't U.S. companies that produce goods overseas be responsible for insuring fair and safe working conditions for the people that produce their products? The products that we use? In recent decades, there has been a revolution in the way products are made. Over the next year, let's help revolutionize the way in which labor is used to produce those products both here and overseas.
Photo courtesy of Don Peterson - Special to The Roanoke Times
Young people make excellent revolutionary leaders. Take, for instance, 17-year-old Joshua Wong. He has been leading throngs of protestors in Hong Kong to demand free elections that were promised by the Chinese central government but are now apparently being rescinded. Or, students at Standley Lake High School near Denver, Colorado; they protested proposed changes to the state's AP history curriculum -- which they called censorship - by walking out of class and gaining national notoriety on the issue. And, 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai; she became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize thanks to her ongoing campaign for the rights of girls to receive an education.
Some young leaders have already started to Globalize the spirit of the 13th Amendment by using the Globalize 13 service-learning curriculum for secondary schools. Students at Soledad Enrichment Action schools in Los Angeles, California; Westwood High School in Blythewood, South Carolina; William Byrd High School in Vinton, Virginia; the High School of Computers and Technology in the Bronx, New York and Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth, New Jersey are all helping to remove slavery from our supply chain and bring more awareness about the issue to their communities. This is how leadership works!
Maintaining our rights and supporting the rights of others requires constant vigilance. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, it's a great time to consider how much we value our right to live free.
If you're a teacher or you know a teacher, they can get the complimentary Globalize 13 digital curriculum by going to: www.Globalize13.org.