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Through most of its history, the Thirteenth Amendment has been interpreted extremely narrowly, especially when compared to the Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. The Thirteenth Amendment has been read in this way because it is “dangerous.” The demand that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States,” taken seriously, potentially calls into question too many different aspects of public and private power, ranging from political governance to market practices to the family itself.
Our contemporary association of “slavery” with a very limited set of historical practices is anachronistic and the result of a long historical process. Yet at the time of the founding, the concept of “slavery” was far broader than currently understood. “Slavery” meant illegitimate domination, political subordination, and the absence of republican government; “chattel slavery” was only the most extreme and visible example of slavery.
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