It’s an idea that goes around from time to time: have all 18 year olds be required to work a year of mandatory public service. Leaving aside the question of whether it’s a good idea or not, there’s a more interesting question: Would it be legal?
Opponents of the idea quickly grasp upon the 13th Amendment, and say “but that’d be involuntary servitude!”. In a word: No The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the 13th Amendment covers only ownership of human beings by other human beings as property as characterized by the enslavement of blacks prior to 1865, and does not cover temporary obligations to the government whether those obligations be military obligations (the draft), labor obligations (a Florida law that required all able-bodied men to contribute labor to road maintenance for a certain number of hours per year), or tax obligations. None of those have the defining characteristics of chattel slavery — i.e., the permanent ownership of human beings by other human beings — thus are not covered by the 13th Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that both the legislative history of the 13th Amendment and the declared sentiments surrounding its passage were strictly limited to outlawing chattel slavery, i.e., the ownership of humans by other humans, and had nothing to do with temporary obligations of citizenship.
This, BTW, is also why the Supreme Court has ruled that taxation is *not* slavery, unlike what the Libertarians are always shouting. Taxation is a temporary obligation of citizenship that does not involve the ownership of one human being by another human being, thus is not slavery under any legal definition of the term.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly noted that the Constitution specifically gives Congress the power to tax, whether money or labor is irrelevant, and also specifically gives Congress the power to raise military forces (i.e., the draft). People complaining that these are slavery are a) confused about what is slavery (slavery is the ownership of human beings as property), and b) confused about what the Constitution says. Or c) Don’t believe that the Constitution should be the supreme law of the land, which, uhm, basically means they advocate treason.
Now, does that mean I think mandatory public service would be a good idea? Let me get back to you on that one. But one thing is clear: It would be legal.
– Badtux the Constitutional Penguin