The 13th Amendment bans all slavery except for "a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." It doesn't appear to contain any language about military service or national security.

A draft is involuntary work that there is no way to opt out of. They can send you anywhere in the world and force you to perform any tasks they want, even some tasks that would be illegal for civilians (like killing people). If you refuse, you go to jail. Why isn't this considered slavery?

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    What about Jury duty?
    – spacetyper
    Oct 11, 2021 at 5:40
  • 19
    Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights had the same issue, and the designers solved it by just adding an explicit exception for military service (and for civil service that is done in place of military service).
    – Heinzi
    Oct 11, 2021 at 7:47
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    It is. It just serves the government interest so it is explicitly permitted. The accepted answer describes how. Jury duty is similar in type but not degree. Oct 11, 2021 at 13:24
  • 3
    In the US context, slavery was always an inherited condition--whereas the children of conscripted military personnel are not automatically drafted. Also, enslaved people could be owned by private individuals (not true of draftees) who had near-absolute right to dispose of their labor & lives, including to sell them to others (not true of draftees either). That's just the tip of the iceberg really...
    – Tiercelet
    Oct 12, 2021 at 18:25
  • 2
    The idea that you cannot opt-out of conscription is not always true. The Danish for instance have a type of conscription but do allow for the concept of a conscientious objector as well.
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 12, 2021 at 20:04

4 Answers 4


The only real answer is that the US Supreme Court, in interpreting the constitution, and specifically the argument that the 13th Amendment prohibits a draft for compelled military services has totally rejected that argument. For many years now the US has not used a draft, and it is obviously possible for the US to have an enduring and powerful military without any draft, which was perhaps not apparent to the Justices in 1918. A draft had been common in this country from the colonial period, through the Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. In reaction to the problems during the Vietnam War, and the great opposition to any draft at that time, the US has not used a draft since, although it retains a legal requirement to register for a possible draft, and the legal authority to impose one should it be thought wise. Note that this was not because of the 13th Amendment. Note also that compelled service by the citizens (or residents) in a locality, particularly to fight fires and floods, when the usual forces are inadequate to that end, has been commonly used. Such compulsory service has never been thought to be prohibited by the 13th Amendment.

Also, as mentioned in comments, citizens can be compelled to do jury duty, which could in theory be considered "involuntary servitude" but has never been thought to be prohibited by the 13th amendment.

The answer by Trish (now deleted) thoroughly described the many differences between a slave and a drafted soldier. Still, drafted military service might be thought to be a form of involuntary servitude. But the Court (and the laws and other courts as well) have not treated it as such. In the Selective Draft Law Cases, 245 U.S. 366 (1918) the Court thought the idea that compulsory military service constituted involuntary servitude was so wrongheaded that it thought a very brief mention sufficient to refute this contention. It wrote (at 245 U. S. 390):

Finally, as we are unable to conceive upon what theory the exaction by government from the citizen of the performance of his supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation, as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people, can be said to be the imposition of involuntary servitude in violation of the prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment, we are constrained to the conclusion that the contention to that effect is refuted by its mere statement.

It is clear from the text of that opinion that the justices thought that the existence of a power to draft soldiers was essential to the implementation of the constitutional power (article I section 8):

  • To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
  • To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
  • To provide and maintain a Navy;
  • To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

The opinion discusses the history of compelled military service in the United States, in the colonies before there was a United States, and in Great Britain before that. The opinion says that:

Compelled military service is neither repugnant to a free government nor in conflict with the constitutional guaranties of individual liberty. Indeed, it may not be doubted that the very conception of a just government and its duty to the citizen includes the duty of the citizen to render military service in case of need, and the right of the government to compel it.


Further, it is said, the right to provide is not denied by calling for volunteer enlistments, but it does not and cannot include the power to exact enforced military duty by the citizen. This however but challenges the existence of all power, for a governmental power which has no sanction to it and which therefore can only be exercised provided the citizen consents to its exertion is in no substantial sense a power.

One may disagree, but that is the law of the land as interpreted by the final body authorized to make such interpretations, the Supreme Court, and it remains good law today.

  • 6
    "It is clear from the text of that opinion that the justices thought that the existence of a power to draft soldiers was essential to the implementation of the constitutional power (article I section 8):" But it's an amendment. Surely by definition, any conflict between the original constitution and amendment should be resolved in favor of the amendment? Oct 11, 2021 at 2:38
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    @Accumulation I agree, but it is not hard to see why the justices on the Supreme Court (the ultimate masters of the enslaved) would disagree.
    – emory
    Oct 11, 2021 at 2:46
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    Levee is French for raised-up. Levees are called that because the ground is raised up and so is the water behind it. It has nothing to do with "raising a work force".
    – Tom V
    Oct 11, 2021 at 7:03
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    I would not put it that way @Panzercrisis I think that had the issue been raised (an not dismissed out of hand) in 1865, in the aftermath of a war in which the Union used conscription extensively, a specific exception for a military draft would have been included. Beyond that, historically conscription has been treated differently than indenture, peonage, or other forms of servitude once legal. Many challanged the draft during Vietnam, and not even the more liberal Justices (such as Black or Brennen) ever suggested this argument, not even in a dissent [...] Oct 12, 2021 at 23:34
  • 3
    @Panzercrisis [...] In short the 13th was very unlikely to have been intended to bar a military draft, no court decision I know of has so interpreted it, nor has any serious legal argument I have heard of. That is just not how it is treated by the US legal system. And I think if, even today, it were so interpreted, it would be promptly amended to provide such an exception. I think the reasoning in the 1918 case was perfectly clear, just not textual. Those justices thought banning a draft simply absurd.. Oct 12, 2021 at 23:38

It is. But because laws are made to benefit the ruling mainstream mayority, or the political class, or whatever you choose to believe, conscription is magically not slavery, because as a citizen you have duties towards "the society" or "the nation" or "democracy". Just like taxiation is magically not theft, because majority agree it's useful. Well... it may be useful, but still is not consented. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxation_as_theft

  • 2
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    Oct 12, 2021 at 12:28
  • 9
    This is really a statement of opinion about what the law should be, not a supportable answer about what it actually is. The US is not currently a libertarian country. Laws are often interpreted in line with existing practice, or in accord with the apparent intent of the legislature, even when some details are not apparent from the actual words of the law. This is even more true of the Constitution, because that is designed to last for an extended time, and is intentionally hard to change. Oct 12, 2021 at 14:45
  • Taxation is not theft. If the money gets misused, people might be considering the misuse as "theft". Life in society is akin to slavery, is it not? I remember someone named Raphael Samuel who wanted to sue his parents because they gave birth to him without asking his permission, and while fully knowing that he'd have to suffer through life.
    – Nav
    Oct 13, 2021 at 19:33
  • @Nav That seems like a stupid idea. Even if a court would agree with you, you still have to suffer through life. No amount of compensation would change that.
    – MechMK1
    Oct 13, 2021 at 23:17
  • @MechMK: Raphael knew it's a stupid idea. Google it. The point however, is that the way we are forced to go through life does seem to be a superset of a form of slavery.
    – Nav
    Oct 14, 2021 at 8:17

I'm no expert, but there's a distinct difference between slavery and a military draft or jury duty. Slavery is unpaid work. With a military draft and with jury duty, the mandated person is paid for his/her work. Compensation might not be entirely fair, but it is paid work.

  • 21
    Slavery is about the rights and status of the enslaved individual, not necessarily their wage. A slave can be paid, and still be a slave. Oct 11, 2021 at 19:24
  • 3
    Military service might also be a tax in kind. Indeed traditionally you could buy your way out of it.
    – mckenzm
    Oct 12, 2021 at 1:33
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    You're correct, you are "no expert". Slavery does not mean being given absolutely nothing for forced labour or other abuses (such as forced copulation). At the least, slaves are typically given at least some tiny amount of food and minimal shelter so their masters can keep keep them alive to continue to be slaves. Oct 12, 2021 at 8:05
  • 2
    In the context of US slavery, enslaved persons (particularly outside the Deep South--lots of regional variation) could be entitled to own money and to work extra jobs for cash wages. One of the ways enslaved people became free was "self-purchase," often paid for with savings from these kinds of jobs--for example John Berry Meachum. This was obviously very risky & most accessible to those with trade skills, but payment not strictly limited to food & lodging. @vsz
    – Tiercelet
    Oct 12, 2021 at 18:00
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    (3/3) In fact, the hiring-out of enslaved labor was (probably consciously) used as a way to disempower white laborers as well by suppressing their wages. You can see this in the life of Frederick Douglass, who was being made to work on shipbuilding in Baltimore; white carpenters (probably motivated by a mix of racism and concern for their labor power) staged a strike at the shipyard to force out free Black workers there. (Slavery touches everything about the American labor market.)
    – Tiercelet
    Oct 12, 2021 at 18:19

Because it is enshrined into the Constitution & applies to everyone (citizen), in contrast to slavery that applies only to the 'slaves', exempting masters, slave owners, slave traders, the Crown, the nobility, etc

As opposed to slavery, the Constitution prescribes the penalties for breaching the laws of the land, whereas in slavery, the penalty is dictated by anyone who's not a slave and is in control/charge of the slave, almost always amounts to death.

  • 5
    Historically the U.S. draft has excluded at least 50% of the adult population.
    – shoover
    Oct 12, 2021 at 2:33
  • The question is asking about the difference between draft & slavery.
    – Zimba
    Oct 12, 2021 at 4:40
  • 1
    This doesn't explain anything remotely relevant to how the draft is different from slavery; it barely explains how Constitutional rights are negated by being a slave.
    – user4657
    Oct 12, 2021 at 4:41

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