James Gray Pope


In Robertson v. Baldwin, the Supreme Court held that merchant seamen under contract could be legally compelled to work notwithstanding the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude. According to the Court, seamen were “deficient in that full and intelligent responsibility for their acts which is accredited to ordinary adults,” and therefore could—along with children and wards—be deprived of liberty. Over the past few years, however, several courts have applied statutory bans on “involuntary servitude” and “forced labor” (a “species of involuntary servitude”) to protect women and children in domestic settings. These cases suggest that Robertson’s categorical exclusion is ripe for reconsideration. Part I of this Article traces its roots to the common law of the household, the shared point of origin both of class and gender hierarchies. It suggests that the Thirteenth Amendment posed a potential challenge to traditional assumptions of natural hierarchy and benevolent paternalism in the domestic sphere. Part II reviews the Robertson decision, focusing especially on justifications for the exclusion. Part III discusses Thirteenth Amendment law and scholarship concerning the physical coercion of services from children and women in domestic settings.