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Open Access Thesis

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Patrick Rael


On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding the constitutionality of de jure segregation. In most studies, the Plessy decision is generally reduced to its treatment of the Fourteenth Amendment. Its relationship to the Thirteenth Amendment, however, has been relatively neglected. Indeed, Plessy v. Ferguson actually holds an important place in Thirteenth Amendment jurisprudence. From its ratification in 1865 through the late nineteenth century, the Thirteenth Amendment was believed to do more than simply abolish chattel slavery. Its framers and early interpreters envisioned emancipation as conferring a wide range of rights upon the freedmen. The Thirteenth Amendment, under this expansive construction, prohibited not only the reduction of the freedmen to barterable property, but also their exclusion from opportunities that consigned them to a subordinate caste. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the Supreme Court interpreted the Thirteenth Amendment narrowly, including in Plessy v. Ferguson. Although histories of the Thirteenth Amendment shed some light on its connection to Plessy, its role in that case remains poorly understood. In this project, I seek to better understand how the expansive vision for the Thirteenth Amendment that was outlined by its framers came to be so easily brushed aside by the Plessy Court less than fifty years later.

Available for download on Wednesday, May 14, 2025