Some lawmakers support removing slavery reference from Minnesota Constitution

Cover of the first printing of the Minnesota Constitution, 1857.
Cover of the first printing of the Minnesota Constitution, 1857.
Jonathunder | Wikimedia Commons

Some Minnesota lawmakers want to amend the state’s constitution to eliminate a little-known clause allowing slavery if someone has been convicted of a crime.

“There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state otherwise than as punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted,” the language in article 1, section 2 reads.

In a Facebook post this week, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell wrote that he has long been troubled by the clause.

“Words matter,” he wrote. “That’s why I’m making it my 2020 resolution to raise awareness of this clause to ignite a movement among people who care about doing what’s right — a movement to champion an amendment removing slavery from the Minnesota State Constitution.”

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Already, his post has prompted action from state lawmakers. Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said he plans to draft a constitutional amendment to change the language and will hold hearings on the issue during the 2020 legislative session that begins next month.

"It does to seem to me that having an exception for slavery is really, really a problem," said Lesch, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. "The constitution we live under as Minnesotans is our values document, and we shouldn't keep legacy language in for the sake of history because the history is there, and the reasons for our changing it would be well documented history as well."

Constitutional amendments need only a simple majority vote in both the House and Senate to head to the ballot.

"Slavery and involuntary servitude are obviously no longer relevant to our laws,” said Republican Sen. Warren Limmer, who chairs the judiciary committee in the upper chamber. “I'm surprised this hasn't come up before."

If passed, the question could be in front of voters as early as this fall.

Minnesota was ahead of the nation in opposing slavery in its constitution. Language abolishing slavery was added in 1865 to the U.S. Constitution in the 13th Amendment. And in 1868, the 14th Amendment said all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens.

That means the Minnesota language has no binding power, said Hamline University law professor David Schultz.

"The language that emerges in the Minnesota Constitution basically bans slavery except in this oddly phrased way in terms of people convicted of certain crimes, but the language is really an artifact of pre-Civil War, Upper Midwest, Northwest ordinance Minnesota politics,” he said.

Still, the language has stayed over the years. Other states, including Colorado and Nebraska, have recently moved to eliminate similar provisions.

And it's not the first time lawmakers have gone back to try to address outdated language or policies. The constitution was amended in the 1960s and 1970s to modernize its language.

Last year, a law passed addressing restrictions written into deeds in the early 20th century designed to keep black people from living in some neighborhoods. The language hasn't been enforceable for decades, but it was still buried in some property records.

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, authored a bill to allow homeowners in Minnesota to add language to their deeds to renounce the covenants.

"It really opened up the eyes of a lot of people, including a lot of people who I would consider conservative Republicans who didn't even know the history of this,” he said.

Still, some have expressed reservations about changing the language in the constitution, saying it serves as an important reminder of the role Minnesota played in helping to win the Civil War and eventually abolish slavery.

Like with the covenants, Hayden said he doesn't want to erase history, but he thinks it's important to at least talk about it.

"The history books in schools don't really talk about it in the way that they should, so I think these give us opportunities to have a full debate about the history of slavery and the history of racial injustice in the state and in this country," Hayden said.