197 U.S. 207 (1905), 235, Clyatt v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 235
Citation:197 U.S. 207, 25 S.Ct. 429, 49 L.Ed. 726
Party Name:Clyatt v. United States
Case Date:March 13, 1905
Court:United States Supreme Court

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197 U.S. 207 (1905)

25 S.Ct. 429, 49 L.Ed. 726



United States

No. 235

United States Supreme Court

March 13, 1905

Argued December 13-14, 1904




Peonage is a status or condition of compulsory service based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The service is enforced unless the debt be paid, and however created, it is involuntary servitude within the prohibition of the Thirteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution. While the ordinary relation of individuals to individual are subject to the control of the states and not to that of the general government, the Thirteenth Amendment grants to Congress power to enforce the prohibition

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against involuntary servitude, including peonage, and to punish persons holding another in peonage, and §§ 1990, 5526, Rev.Stat. are valid legislation under such power and operate directly on every person violating their provisions, whether in state or territory and whether there be or not any municipal ordinance or state law sanctioning such holding. Conviction cannot be had under an indictment charging defendants with returning certain persons to a condition of peonage unless there is proof that the persons so returned had actually been in such condition prior to the alleged act of returning them thereto.

Where the bill of exceptions, after referring to the empaneling of the jury, contains recitals that the plaintiff produced witnesses, followed in each case by the testimony of the witness at the close of all of which there were farther recitals that the parties rested, these statements are sufficient, even in the absence of a technical affirmative recital to that effect, to show that the bill of exceptions contains all the testimony, and defendant is not to be deprived of a full consideration of the question of his guilt by such omission, and even in the absence of a motion to instruct the jury to find for the defendant, this Court may examine the question where it is plain that error has been committed.

No matter how severe may be the condemnation due to the conduct of a party charged with crime, it is the duty of the court to see that all the elements of the crime are proved or that testimony is offered which justifies a jury in finding those elements.

Sections 1990 and 5526, Rev.Stat., read:

SEC. 1990. The holding of any person to service or labor under the system known as peonage is abolished and forever prohibited in the Territory of New Mexico, or in any other territory or state of the United States, and all acts, laws, resolutions, orders, regulations, or usages of the Territory of New Mexico, or of any other territory or state, which have heretofore established, maintained, or enforced, or by virtue of which any attempt shall hereafter be made to establish, maintain, or enforce, directly or indirectly, the voluntary or involuntary service or labor of any persons as peons, in liquidation of any debt or obligation, or otherwise, are declared null and void.

SEC. 5526. Every person who holds, arrests, returns, or causes to be held, arrested, or returned, or in any manner aids in the arrest or return of any person to a condition of peonage shall be punished by a fine of not less than one thousand nor

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more than five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment not less than one year nor more than five years, or by both.

On November 21, 1901, the grand jury returned into the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of Florida an indictment in two counts, the first of which is as follows:

The grand jurors of the United States of America impaneled and sworn within and for the district aforesaid, on their oaths present, that one Samuel M. Clyatt, heretofore, to-wit: on the eleventh day of February, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and one, in the County of Levy, State of Florida, within the district aforesaid, and within the jurisdiction of this Court, did then and there unlawfully and knowingly return one Will Gordon and one Mose Ridley to a condition of peonage by forcibly and against the will of them, the said Will Gordon and the said Mose Ridley, returning them, the said Will Gordon and Mose Ridley, to work to and for Samuel M. Clyatt, D. T. Clyatt, and H. H. Tift, copartners doing business [25 S.Ct. 430] under the firm name and style of Clyatt & Tift, to be held by them, the said Clyatt & Tift, to work out a debt claimed to be due to them, the said Clyatt & Tift, by the said Will Gordon and Mose Ridley; contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the United States.

The second count differs only in charging that defendant caused and aided in returning Gordon and Ridley. A trial resulted in a verdict of guilty, and thereupon the defendant was sentenced to confinement at hard labor for four years. The case was taken on appropriate writ to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which certified to this Court three questions. Subsequently the entire record was brought here on a writ of certiorari, and the case was heard on its merits.

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BREWER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BREWER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The constitutionality and scope of §§ 1990 and 5526 present the first questions for our consideration. They prohibit peonage. What is peonage? It may be defined as a status or condition of compulsory service, based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The basal fact is indebtedness. As said by Judge Benedict, delivering the opinion in Jaremillo v. Romero, 1 N.M.190, 194: "One fact existed universally: all were indebted to their masters. This was the cord by which they seemed bound to their master's service." Upon this is based a condition of compulsory service. Peonage is sometimes classified as voluntary or involuntary, but this implies simply a difference in the mode of origin, but none in the character of the servitude. The one exists where the debtor voluntarily contracts to enter the service of his creditor. The other is forced upon the debtor by some provision of law. But peonage, however created, is compulsory service -- involuntary servitude. The peon can release himself therefrom, it is true, by the payment of the debt, but otherwise the service is enforced. A clear distinction exists between peonage and the voluntary performance of labor or rendering of services in payment of a debt. In the latter case, the debtor, though contracting to pay his indebtedness by labor or service, and subject, like any other contractor, to an action for damages for breach of that contract, can elect at any time to break it, and no law or force compels

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performance or a continuance of the service. We need not stop to consider any possible limits or exceptional cases, such as the service of a sailor, Robertson v. Baldwin, 165 U.S. 275, or the obligations of a child to its parents, or of an apprentice to his master, or the power of the legislature to make unlawful, and punish criminally, an abandonment by an employee of his post of labor in any extreme cases. That which is contemplated by the statute is compulsory service to secure the payment of a debt. Is this legislation within the power of Congress? It may be conceded, as a general proposition, that the ordinary relations of individual to individual are subject to the control of the states, and are not entrusted to the general government; but the Thirteenth Amendment, adopted as an outcome of the Civil War, reads:

SEC. 1. 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.

SEC. 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This amendment denounces a status or condition, irrespective of the manner or authority by which it is created. The prohibitions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments are largely upon the acts of the states, but the Thirteenth Amendment names no party or authority, but simply forbids slavery and involuntary servitude...

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