Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Peonage Definition:

Compulsory service in payment of a debt.

Related Terms: Slavery

In Farrell, Justice Melloy wrote:

"Peonage is compulsory service in payment of a debt.

"Compulsory service is the equivalent of involuntary servitude which the Supreme Court has defined as a condition of servitude in which the victim is forced to work for the defendant by the use or threat of physical restraint or physical injury, or by the use or threat of coercion through law or the legal process.

"Thus, in order to prove peonage, the government must show that the defendant intentionally held a person against his or her will and coerced that person to work in order to satisfy a debt by (1) physical restraint or force, (2) legal coercion, or (3) threats of legal coercion or physical force.

"In determining whether physical or legal coercion or threats thereof could plausibly have compelled the victim to serve, the jury is entitled to consider evidence of other means of coercion, or of poor working conditions, or of the victim's special vulnerabilities."

In re John Clement, Justice Kaplan noted:

"Peonage, a subset of involuntary servitude, is the status or condition of compulsory service, based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The essence of peonage is compulsory service in payment of a debt. A peon is one who is compelled to work for his creditor until his debt is paid."

Peonage is a criminal offence in the United States, as set out at Title 18 of the United States Code, §1581.


  • Bailey v. Alabama, 219 U.S. 219 (1911)
  • In re John Clemente, 409 BR 288 (United States Bankruptcy Court, 2009)
  • US v. Farrell, 563 F. 3d 364 (United States Court of Appeals, 2009)

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