1941 December 12

AG Biddle Directs U.S. Attorneys to Pursue Cases of Involuntary Servitude, Slavery, and Peonage


U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle on this day issued Circular #3591 instructing U.S. Attorneys around the country to pursue cases of peonage and involuntary servitude as forms of slavery. Slavery is outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment (December 6, 1865), and the U.S. criminal code outlaws both slavery and involuntary servitude. Biddle’s action was a recognition that many people, particularly in the old slave states of the Southeast, existed in a state of peonage or involuntary servitude.

Biddle’s directive represented the use of the Civil Rights Unit, which Attorney General Frank Murphy created on February 2, 1939, and which was the forerunner of today’s Civil Rights Division. Biddle’s memo cited the statutory causes of action as including keeping someone in your employment by force or intimidation, or falsely accusing someone of a crime as a coercive threat.

Learn more: Pete Daniel, The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901–1969 (1972)

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