Classical (non-racial) systems of slavery in Western civilization, such as Greco-Roman, Celtic, etc. typically included provisions for selling oneself into slavery. This might be as a way to escape crushing debt, or done as a matter of honor to serve a benefactor. These methods existed in addition to other ways that one might become a slave, such as being taken as a Prisoner Of War or being convicted of certain criminal offenses.

Did this principle apply, at least in theory, to slavery as practiced in the USA before the Thirteenth Amendment? I recognize that there were debt-based servitude arrangements not amounting to total, lifetime enslavement (e.g. Indentured Servitude) that were used primarily by white immigrants, but was legally enslaving a free, willing US resident or immigrant legally impossible by any means or was this simply something that was not done for social or practical reasons?

If "The United States" is too broad for such an analysis, we can limit ourselves to the state of Virginia, which had some of the earliest legislation surrounding the "peculiar institution".

For the purposes of this question, colonial-era law (pre-independence) may count.

This question has nothing to do with unlawful human trafficking, nor does it have anything to do with BDSM-culture "slave contracts" and similar phenomena.

  • 1
    You may be able to get better answers at History.SE but I've given it a college try based upon my mix of history, law and legal history knowledge.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 1, 2019 at 22:46
  • BDSM-culture slavery is slavery only in name. If your sub tells you they want to leave, you have to let them go.
    – forest
    Jul 3, 2019 at 0:51
  • @forest exactly, that's why I excluded it. I don't want people tripping over the name, but concentrating on the concept. Jul 3, 2019 at 0:53

1 Answer 1


In British colonies and their successors

It is hard to prove a negative, but in the British colonies and their successors, I believe that the answer was probably no.

Indentured servitude came close to the concept of selling oneself into slavery, although for a fixed term of years.

The 13th Amendment recognizes the possibility that slavery or involuntary servitude could be a punishment for a criminal offense, although I've heard of only a few instances in which permanent slavery was actually a punishment for a criminal offense (see, e.g., one case from 1659 in what is now New Mexico but then was part of Old Mexico, mentioned below). On the other hand, the equivalent of indentured servitude, which was sometimes called slavery, was imposed with some regularity, most often for offenders with African descent, prior to the adoption of the 13th Amendment and into the post-Civil War era, was more often a punishment. And indentured servitude remained a not uncommon punishment and continues to be used, for example, with sentences of hard labor being common in military justice, mandatory prison labor (especially "chain gangs"), and sentences of useful community service being common in civilian criminal courts, all constituting indentured servitude to some extent.

Both voluntary military service and military conscription are also forms of indentured servitude in economic substance and in their legal effect, but these forms of commitments to involuntary military service are not treated as indentured servitude for purposes of the 13th Amendment.

N.B. In this answer I use the term indentured servitude to refer to involuntary service and labor for a fixed period of time, rather than for life, whether this entered into as a voluntary contract or as an involuntary punishment. But, historically, people who I define as indentured servants for the purposes of this answer (especially if this service was imposed as punishment for a crime and the individuals so sentenced were of African or Native American descent(, were often referred to as slaves. The term indentured servant was sometimes limited to voluntarily entered into arrangements, with the term slavery sometimes used for both short term and permanent involuntary labor not entered into voluntarily (in a manner similar to the use of the term mortgage to specify a voluntary security interest in property and the term lien to specify an involuntarily created security interest in property, although this semantic convention is also inconsistent). But, the historical usage is not very consistent anyway, and I understand the word slavery as it is used in the question to be limited to permanent involuntary servitude, rather than temporary involuntary servitude, so I use only a restricted sense of the word slavery in this answer, consistent with the way the word is used in the question.

I've also never heard of even a single instance of someone selling themselves into slavery in the U.S., despite being a fairly avid history buff who minored in history in college.

Another piece of circumstantial evidence that argues against the existence of a mechanism for selling yourself into slavery is the fact that the U.S. Constitution, all the way back in 1789, already provided for, as a basic function of government, for bankruptcy, and the institution of bankruptcy was one with British law antecedents going back to 1705 (which has a quasi-criminal character but mostly the same effect) that existed in the American colonies as well. Likewise, the U.S. Constitution also prohibited punishments involving a "corruption of blood" which held descendants responsible for the acts of their ancestors even if those acts amounted to treason. U.S. Constitution, Art. III, Sec. 3, ¶ 2.

Self-enslavement for "honor" is very akin to a feudal oath of fealty, which was strongly rejected as part of the Independence movement of the United States including language in the 1789 U.S. Constitution, and it was also an institution that never had much currency in the Americas because many of the early colonies were of a corporate or religious nature, rather than an aristocratic one, unlike many early Spanish colonies.

These historical circumstances eliminated the main circumstances motivating historical examples of an institution of submitting oneself to slavery.

Another historical fact that strongly argues against there being an institution of selling oneself in slavery was the strongly racialized nature of slavery in British colonies and their successors. Indentured servitude was for white people, slavery was for black people, and there really wasn't much of a cultural or conceptual need for mix up these two models. Doing so would have undermined a cultural axiom of racial supremacy which was important to sustaining slavery as an institution in the United States.

This may also be a reason that there was not a strong institution of enslaving either European descent or Native American prisoners of war in North America, even though some Native Americans were enslaved on a more ad hoc basis by people of European descent. If I recall correctly, early attempts to enslave Native Americans were also not very successful as an economic proposition for the would be slavers, for whatever reasons, further racializing slavery as an institution in North America largely limited to people of African descent. The discussion at the link above illustrates the parameters of the situation:

When Europeans arrived as colonists in North America, Native Americans changed their practice of slavery dramatically. Native Americans began selling war captives to Europeans rather than integrating them into their own societies as they had done before. As the demand for labor in the West Indies grew with the cultivation of sugar cane, Europeans enslaved Native Americans for the Thirteen Colonies, and some were exported to the "sugar islands." The British settlers, especially those in the southern colonies, purchased or captured Native Americans to use as forced labor in cultivating tobacco, rice, and indigo. Accurate records of the numbers enslaved do not exist. Scholars estimate tens of thousands of Native Americans may have been enslaved by the Europeans, being sold by Native Americans themselves or European men.

Slaves became a caste of people who were foreign to the English (Native Americans, Africans and their descendants) and non-Christians. The Virginia General Assembly defined some terms of slavery in 1705:

All servants imported and brought into the Country ... who were not Christians in their native Country ... shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion ... shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resists his master ... correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction ... the master shall be free of all punishment ... as if such accident never happened.

— Virginia General Assembly declaration, 1705.

The slave trade of Native Americans lasted only until around 1730. It gave rise to a series of devastating wars among the tribes, including the Yamasee War. The Indian Wars of the early 18th century, combined with the increasing importation of African slaves, effectively ended the Native American slave trade by 1750. Colonists found that Native American slaves could easily escape, as they knew the country. The wars cost the lives of numerous colonial slave traders and disrupted their early societies. The remaining Native American groups banded together to face the Europeans from a position of strength. Many surviving Native American peoples of the southeast strengthened their loose coalitions of language groups and joined confederacies such as the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Catawba for protection.

Native American women were at risk for rape whether they were enslaved or not; during the early colonial years, settlers were disproportionately male. They turned to Native women for sexual relationships. Both Native American and African enslaved women suffered rape and sexual harassment by male slaveholders and other white men.

The exact number of Native Americans who were enslaved is unknown because vital statistics and census reports were at best infrequent. Andrés Reséndez estimates that between 147,000 and 340,000 Native Americans were enslaved in North America, excluding Mexico. Linford Fisher's estimates 2.5 million to 5.5 million Natives enslaved in the entire Americas. Even though records became more reliable in the later colonial period, Native American slaves received little to no mention, or they were classed with African slaves with no distinction. For example, in the case of "Sarah Chauqum of Rhode Island", her master listed her as mulatto in the bill of sale to Edward Robinson, but she won her freedom by asserting her Narragansett identity.

Little is known about Native Americans that were forced into labor. Two myths have complicated the history of Native American slavery: that Native Americans were undesirable as servants, and that Native Americans were exterminated or pushed out after King Philip's War. The precise legal status for some Native Americans is at times difficult to establish, as involuntary servitude and slavery were poorly defined in 17th-century British America. Some masters asserted ownership over the children of Native American servants, seeking to turn them into slaves. The historical uniqueness of slavery in America is that European settlers drew a rigid line between insiders, "people like themselves who could never be enslaved", and nonwhite outsiders, "mostly Africans and Native Americans who could be enslaved". A unique feature between natives and colonists was that colonists gradually asserted sovereignty over the native inhabitants during the seventeenth century, ironically transforming them into subjects with collective rights and privileges that Africans could not enjoy. The West Indies developed as plantation societies prior to the Chesapeake Bay region and had a demand for labor.

In the Spanish colonies, the church assigned Spanish surnames to Native Americans and recorded them as servants rather than slaves. Many members of Native American tribes in the Western United States were taken for life as slaves. In some cases, courts served as conduits for enslavement of Indians, as evidenced by the enslavement of the Hopi man Juan Suñi in 1659 by a court in Santa Fe for theft of food and trinkets from the governor's mansion. In the East, Native Americans were recorded as slaves.

The colonial legislation from Virginia from 1705 quoted above, in particular, argues that Europeans could not generally be enslaved in Virginia, although the distinction was formally religious rather than racial. But, the religious aspect also had a caveat omitted in the quote from the 1705 CE legislation from Virginia above that muddy the waters of religious v. racial or national origin discrimination:

all servants imported and brought into the Country... who were not christians in their native country, (except... Turks and Moors in amity with her majesty, and others that can make due proof of their being free in England, or any other christian country, before they were shipped...) shall be accounted and be slaves, and such be here bought and sold notwithstanding a conversion to christianity afterward.

Thus, Jews and Muslims and deists (true atheism as opposed to deism from very rare in the Enlightenment era and only became common after Darwin) who were were free "in England, or in any other christian country, before they were shipped" were still not considered slaves in Virginia in 1705 CE. And for that purpose free simply meant, not a slave. Thus, Jews from England were considered free in England, even though they did not have full citizenship rights and were subject to de jure discrimination there from 1655 CE when they first returned to England after Jews were expelled from England in 1290 CE (in connection with the religious movements associated with the Crusades), through at least 1829 CE.

Most people in Africa during the colonial era in North America, who were Christians, were Ethiopians or Egyptians, neither of whom were a major source of New World slaves.

Also not unrelated is the fact that early attempts to use indentured servants and hired farm hands of European descent in the American Southeast were not very successful because the mortality and disease rates of these servants, especially due to mosquito born diseases to which they had little natural immunity, was so significantly greater than that of African descent slaves who had some natural immunity to these diseases, making white slavery an economically unattractive institution to establish.

Periodic rounds of "moral panic" related to the nebulous and often not very well grounded fear of white slavery that has recurred throughout U.S. history at regular intervals also argues for the racialized nature of the institution in the U.S. and its predecessor British colonies.

In sum, there is very good reason to believe that it was never possible to sell oneself into slavery in the United States or in the British colonies that preceded it, even though it is hard to prove that point definitively.

was legally enslaving a free, willing US resident or immigrant legally impossible by any means or was this simply something that was not done for social or practical reasons?

I do not believe that this was expressly provided for by statute, but most law at the time was common law rooted in British case law anyway, which makes distinguishing between something that was "legally impossible" and something "that was not done for social or practical reasons" harder to distinguish in common law jurisdictions than in civil law jurisdictions based upon continental Europe.

Colonies of Civil Law Countries

I am less confident of the status of this possibility in the case of Dutch or Spanish or French colonies in North America.

I know from historical accounts of French North America that slavery, while it existed, was much less racialized with a significant community of free people of color.

And, all three of those countries had legal systems with their roots in Roman law that was "received" by these countries in the early modern era basically when political leaders as the Middle Ages started to fade away, started to use Roman legal treatises to justify their resolutions of disputes without formally adopting this as a positive source of law (the Netherlands is a bit more muddled as it was also a major participant in the home grown institution called the "law merchant" devised by merchants serving as arbitrators, especially in disputes between merchants, some of which ended up influencing British common law). Anyway, in these countries, Roman legal sources that recognized the concept of selling yourself into slavery would have been available and could have been considered good law.

Also, because these countries, especially Spain and France, had much less of a vibrant commercial tradition in the early modern period, it is quite likely that the institution of bankruptcy that developed comparatively early in Britain came later there, potentially necessitating a way to settle debts that could not be discharged and which might otherwise burden descendants (many places in continental Europe had descendants liable for the debts of their ancestors into the early modern period).

So, if it were ever possible to sell oneself into slavery at all in North American history, in what ultimately became the United States, it probably happened in French North America, former Spanish colonies, or in Dutch Manhattan, with the first two probably much more likely to have occurred than the last one.

Even there, however, I cannot think of a single historical or literary account that recognizes even one example of such a transition in personal status. A short account of French slavery law also provides no precedent for anything remotely similar to this practice. This is particularly notable since the French apparently largely borrowed from Dutch and Spanish practice.

In Pre-Colonial America

The possibility of selling oneself into slavery did exist in the legal and cultural circumstances of some Native American tribes in North America, where the institution was less like the chattel slavery of the early English slave traders. As explained at the link above:

Many Native American tribes practiced some form of slavery before the European introduction of African slavery into North America.

Native American groups often enslaved war captives whom they primarily used for small-scale labor. Others however would stake themselves in gambling situations when they had nothing else which would put them into servitude for a short time in some cases for life; captives were also sometimes tortured as part of religious rites, and these sometimes involved ritual cannibalism. During times of famine some Native Americans would also temporarily sell their children to obtain food... Several tribes held captives as hostages for payment. Various tribes also practiced debt slavery or imposed slavery on tribal members who had committed crimes; full tribal status would be restored as the enslaved worked off their obligations to the tribal society. Obtaining prisoners was also a strong interest for Native American warriors as for the qualification of being considered brave this was especially an interest of male warriors in various tribes. Other slave-owning tribes of North America included Comanche of Texas, the Creek of Georgia; the fishing societies, such as the Yurok, who lived in Northern California; the Pawnee, and the Klamath.

Self-enslavement seems to go hand in hand with slavery not having a strong racial component.

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    Your second paragraph is mistaken; see this answer. And "there were almost no Jews in England in the colonial era" is massively overstated; just ask the Rothschilds. But these are notpicks on yet another good answer. Jul 2, 2019 at 11:11
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    @TimLymington I disagree about the second paragraph. The answer notes that "the equivalent of indentured servitude" was used as a punishment, which is what the answer you link to describes. ohwilleke is simply distinguishing (permanent) "slavery" from (temporary) "servitude". I suppose one could edit "slavery" to "lifetime slavery" to try and make the point more clear, but I'm not sure that's needed, since we can logically see that ohwilleke must be using "slavery" in a sense that doesn't encompass "indentured servitude" or else the sentence you object to would be self-contradictory.
    – Mark Amery
    Jul 2, 2019 at 11:38
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    @TimLymington I've tweaked the second paragraph and added a clarifying paragraph regarding terminology in light of the link you provided, informed and qualified by the discussion in the comment from Mark Amery.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 2, 2019 at 13:51
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    @TimLymington The reference to the number of Jews in England was so tangential to the core of the answer that I dropped it entirely.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 2, 2019 at 14:12

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