Circular No. 3591

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Circular No. 3591  (1941) 
by Francis Biddle
Circular No. 3591

Circular No. 3591 was a directive from Attorney General Francis Biddle to all United States attorneys concerning the procedure for handling cases relating to involuntary servitude, slavery and peonage. Following the formal abolition of slavery in the United States at the end of the Civil War, freed slaves in the American South often found themselves subject to conditions of forced labor that approximated slavery. [1] Author Douglas A. Blackmon has called this period, which lasted until the end of World War II, "the Age of Neoslavery." [2] "Peonage," the working out of a debt, was the term most frequently used for this form of bondage. A federal statute, 18 United States Code 444, enacted in 1867 to criminalize the practice, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1905; [3] and in 1911, the Court struck down an Alabama law that compelled contract workers to continue in service to their employers.[4] Nevertheless, peonage and other forms of forced labor persisted. "Convict leasing" permitted private employers to pay state and local governments for the labor of persons convicted of crimes; [5] and a practice known as "confessing judgment" forced African Americans to admit to minor offenses, often based on spurious accusations, and bind themselves to white employers who agreed to pay their fines and costs. [6] Because traditional reliance on the peonage law resulted in few convictions and only minor penalties in cases where convictions were obtained, Attorney General Biddle opted to refocus the efforts of the Department of Justice on the broader issue of slavery, directing the department's prosecutors to attack the practice by name and use a wider array of criminal statutes to convict both slave-holding employers and the local officials who abetted them. [7] He announced the new policy in Circular No. 3591.



December 12, 1941



RE:Involuntary Servitude,

Slavery, and Peonage
A summary of the Department files on alleged peonage violations discloses numerous

instances of "prosecution declined" by United States Attorneys, the chief reason stated
as being the absence of the element of debt. It is apparent that these determinations
were reached after considering the facts at hand only in accordance with the case law
under Section 444, Title 18, U.S. Code, which holds that debt is the "basal element of
peonage." It is further disclosed that only in a negligible number of instances was
consideration given these complaints in light of:

(a) Section 443, Title 18, U.S. Code, which punishes for causing persons
to be held in involuntary servitude, regardless of the existence of
a debt.
(b) Section 51, Title 18, U.S. Code, which punishes for conspiracy to
deprive citizens of rights secured to them by the Constitution,
particularly the right to be free from slavery and involuntary
(c) Section 52, Title 18, U.S. Code, which punishes persons vested with
official authority who aid or cause others to suffer deprivation of
rights secured to them by the Constitution, particularly the right
to be free from slavery and compulsory servitude.
(d) Section 88, Title 18, U.S. Code, the general conspiracy statute,
which may be employed in combination with Section 443 or Section 52.
It is the purpose of these instructions to direct the attention of the United

States Attorneys to the possibilities of successful prosecutions stemming from alleged
peonage complaints which have heretofore been considered inadequate to invoke federal
jurisdiction. It is requested that the spelling out of peonage under Section 444 be
deferred in favor of building the cases around the issue of involuntary servitude and
slavery under Sections 443, 51[,] and 52, disregarding entirely the element of debt. If,
however, it is found that a claimed debt is the basis of the intimidation to compel one
to the service of another, a separate count under Section 444 should be included in the indictment. Evidence of such debt, of course, may likewise be employed as an additional
circumstance to prove intimidation under the counts based on Sections 443, 51, and 52.
In any event the Government should henceforth emphasize and depend upon the issue of in-
voluntary servitude and slavery in lieu of peonage (debt plus involuntary service) in
prosecuting this type of case.

The United States Attorneys are instructed, therefore, to consider such complaints

in accordance with the following statutes and authorize prosecutions where any one or more
of the following conditions exist, regardless of the existence of debt real or claimed:

(a) Section 443, Title 18, U.S. Code
carrying or enticing of any person from one place to another
in order that he may be held in slavery or involuntary servitude;
causing another by force, fraud or intimidation to enter and
remain in another's employment;
causing one to be held by threats, as well as by force,
and whether such threats are of prosecution, arrest or imprison-
ment or by threats of bodily harm;
holding another by threats of prosecution, even under a valid
law; the validity of the law not justifying its use for the criminal
purpose of causing compulsory service by intimidation;
where one does not stay in his employment of his own free will
but only in accordance with the will of his master or employer, in-
voluntary service exists. [sic] -- "service" does not necessarily mean
labor, i.e., a man may be in that state if he is held to be made to
work but escapes before he has begun such work;
by falsely accusing another of crime and carrying him before a
magistrate in order that he may be convicted and put to hard labor
in consequence of which such person is convicted and put to hard
labor, the false accuser at the time having the purpose or design
to hire such person or to enable some other person to hire him.
(b) Section 51, Title 18, U.S. Code
If two or more persons conspire or combine to do any of the
acts outlined above, they are guilty of a conspiracy to deprive
the person, if he is a citizen of the United States, of the free
exercise or enjoyment of the right and privilege secured to him
by the Constitution of the United States to be free from involun-
tary servitude, and are indictable accordingly.
(c) Section 52, Title 18, U.S. Code
This section is applicable to public officers, judges, sheriffs,
local constabulary, etc., who act under color and in the name of
their authority in perpetrating any of the acts listed above in viola-
tion of a person's rights [sic] to be free from involuntary servitude and
slavery as secured to him by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
For a discussion of the applicability of this Section to colorably
official action, see Circular No. 3356, Supp.1. [8]
In the matter of control by one over the person of another, the circumstances

under which each person is placed must be determined, i.e., the subservience of the
will of one to the other. Open force, threats or intimidation need not be used to cause
a person to go involuntarily from one place to another to work and to remain at such
work; nor does evidence of kind treatment show an absence of involuntary servitude.

In the United States one cannot sell himself as a peon or slave -- the law is fixed and

established to protect the weak-minded, the poor, the miserable. Men will sometimes sell
themselves for a meal of victuals or contract with another who acts as surety on his [sic] bond to
work out the amount of the bond upon his [sic] release from jail. Any such contract is
positively null and void and the procuring and causing of such contract to be made violates
these statutes.

It is not necessary that the defendants be themselves charged with holding a person in

a condition of compulsory servitude, a showing of aiding in holding or returning one to that
condition is sufficient.


1. The United States Attorneys should contact local law enforcement officials by letter,

circular, conference, or any other means found effective for seeking state wide [sic] cooperation
and advise them that the practices outlined above will be prosecuted by the Federal Government.

2. In those states where legislatures have enacted criminal statutes to enforce labor

contracts, United States Attorneys from the various districts therein should promptly notify
the local magistrates, sheriffs, and other law enforcement officers, that such laws are re-
pugnant to the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
and that action to enforce such statutes may subject the local officials to federal prosecution.

3. In the interest of consistency and uniformity in the method of investigation, the

Federal Bureau of Investigation has been requested to direct all original complaints in this
field to the Civil Rights Section of the Criminal Division of the Department for clearance and
instruction before embarking upon a formal investigation. No investigation or prosecution of
these cases should be commenced through the offices of the various United States Attorneys
without Departmental sanction. Because of the importance of unified and consistent prosecu-
tion policy in these cases, it is further requested that no indictments under these statutes
be sought without obtaining authority from the Department.

4. To assure emphasis on the issue of involuntary servitude and slavery in considering

these cases on the one hand and to minimize the necessity of relying upon the element of debt
to fix jurisdiction on the other, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been requested to

change the title on its reports from "Peonage" to read "Involuntary Servitude and Slavery."
Henceforth, Peonage will be considered as secondary to involuntary servitude
and slavery investigations.
Attorney General [9]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse


  1. See generally, Levine, Bruce C. (2013). The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South. New York: Random House. p. 295-299. ISBN 9781400067039. 
  2. Blackmon, Douglas A. (2008). Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Anchor Books. p. 402. ISBN 9780385722704. 
  3. Goluboff, Risa L.Goluboff, Risa L. (2009). "The Thirteenth Amendment in Historical Perspective". University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law (University of Pennsylvania Law School) 11 (5): 1451–1473 at 1453. Retrieved May 13, 2013.  The statute is now part of 18 USC Chapter 77 - PEONAGE, SLAVERY, AND TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS.
  4. Bailey v. Alabama, 219 U.S. 219 (1911).
  5. Blackmon, pp. 54-56.
  6. Blackmon, pp. 66-68.
  7. Goluboff at 1457.
  8. "Circular No. 3356, Supp. No. 1, Re: Federal Criminal Jurisdiction over Violations of Civil Liberties." Assistant Attorney General O. John Rogge (Criminal Division) to All United States Attorneys, May 21, 1940.
  9. "Circular No. 3591, Re: Involuntary Servitude, Slavery, and Peonage." Francis Biddle to All United States Attorneys, Dec. 12, 1941, File 50-821, Record Group 60, Department of Justice, National Archives.