U.S. Supreme Court

BUTLER v. PERRY, 240 U.S. 328 (1916)

Decided February 21, 1916.

Mr. Justice McReynolds delivered the opinion of the court:

Chapter 6537, Laws of Florida (Acts of 1913), provides:

Plaintiff in error was convicted in the county judge's court, Columbia county, upon a charge of failing to work on a road, and sentenced to jail for thirty days. The circuit court granted a writ of habeas corpus; he was heard, remanded to the custody of the sheriff, and then released under bond. The supreme court of the state affirmed the action of the circuit court, and the cause is here upon writ of error.

It is insisted that sections10 and 12, supra, are invalid because they undertake to impose involuntary servitude not as a punishment for crime, contrary to the 13th Amendment to the Federal Constitution.

In view of ancient usage and the unanimity of judicial opinion, it must be taken as settled that, unless restrained by some constitutional limitation, a state has inherent power to require every able-bodied man within its jurisdiction to labor for a reasonable time on public roads near his residence without direct compensation. This is a part of the duty which he owes to the public. The law of England is thus declared in Blackstone's Commentaries:

The trinoda necessitas was an obligation falling on all freemen, or at least on all free householders. 

From Colonial days to the present time conscripted labor has been much relied on for the construction and maintenance of roads. The system was introduced from England, and, while it has produced no Appian Way, appropriateness to the circumstances existing in rural communities gave it general favor. In 1889 the statutes of twenty- seven states provided for such labor on public roads. 

The ordinance of 1787 for the government of the Northwest Territory declares: 'There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.'  In 1792 the territorial legislative body passed an act providing: 'That every male inhabitant of sixteen years of age and upwards on being duly warned to work on the highways by the supervisor in the township to which such inhabitant may belong shall repair to the place and at the time by the said supervisor appointed with such utensils and tools as may be ordered him wherewith he is to labour and there abide and obey the direction of such supervisor during the day in opening and repairing the highway.' 

By their several Constitutions the states within the limits of the Northwest Territory prohibited involuntary servitude substantially in the language of the 1787 ordinance, and with the possible exception of Wisconsin, all of them early enacted and long enforced laws requiring labor upon public roads.

Utilizing the language of the ordinance of 1787, the 13th Amendment declares that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist. This Amendment was adopted with reference to conditions existing since the foundation of our government, and the term 'involuntary servitude' was intended to cover those forms of compulsory labor akin to African slavery which, in practical operation, would tend to produce like undesirable results.  It introduced no novel doctrine with respect of services always treated as exceptional, and certainly was not intended to interdict enforcement of those duties which individuals owe to the state, such as services in the army, militia, on the jury, etc. The great purpose in view was liberty under the protection of effective government, not the destruction of the latter by depriving it of essential powers. Slaughter-House Cases.

We find no error in the judgment of the court below, and it is affirmed.

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