Mann Act

2012-07-29 10:49:13

The Mann Act, sometimes called the White Slave Traffic Act, was introduced in Congress in 1909 and passed the following year. Its drafting was prompted by a number of social concerns that came to prominence in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Initially, it developed as a response to growing concerns about increased prostitution linked to white slavery, immigration, urbanization, and the resulting changing status of women. These concerns were exacerbated by the publication of lurid and sensational stories about vice rings appearing in muckraking magazines of the era. Progressive reformers responded to the issue’s increasing prominence by sponsoring city ordinances outlawing prostitution and by supporting the passage of related laws at the state level.

The federal Mann Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman James Mann, who represented the Illinois congressional district that included Chicago. He based the law on the provisions of the commerce clause, which authorized Congress to regulate interstate commerce, and on the terms of an international treaty that focused on the suppression of the international prostitution rings. The law was passed by Congress with minimal opposition and remained in effect until it became essentially worthless in the 1960s, a result of lack of enforcement and repeated passage of amendments limiting its reach. The Mann Act made it a crime to transport women in interstate or foreign commerce for immoral purposes or with the goal of persuading the female to participate in immoral acts. Efforts at enforcement were to be facilitated by the law’s provision authorizing immigration officials to maintain records of instances in which individuals appeared to be attempting to procure women for immoral purposes. It also attempted to secure the assistance of proprietors of brothels by specifying that, if they provided the government with requested information on foreign prostitutes, they would be deemed immune from prosecution under the Mann Act.

Although the extent of the problem of white slavery in the United States in the early twentieth century was not as serious as supporters of the bill contended, its enforcement during the first two decades prompted arrests, the amassing of records, and the eventual prosecution of traders in white slavery. At least two significant U.S. Supreme Court decisions resulted from such prosecutions, both of which not only upheld the constitutionality of the Mann Act, but in so doing also expanded the powers of Congress under the commerce clause.

In 1913, the Court heard on appeal the case of Hoke v. U.S., 227 U.S. 308 (1913), which dealt with the conviction of a man who had transported a young woman from Louisiana to Texas for the purpose of having her engage in prostitution. The plaintiff argued that the Mann Act was unconstitutional because Congress had overextended its authority under the commerce clause by legislating in an area (morality) that was an issue reserved for state regulation. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his contention and thus broadened the reach of the commerce clause.

Justice William McKenna, writing for a unanimous Court, stated that this was a situation in which, because of the involvement of interstate transport, no single state could regulate effectively. He cited as precedents federal rulings upholding Congress’s power to regulate lottery tickets and obscene materials. Justice McKenna wrote that the ‘‘broad and universal power’’ of Congress to regulate in the area of interstate commerce had been so frequently upheld that there should be little question of its extent. He also noted that the action of Congress in such cases did not interfere with the power of states to legislate on moral issues within their boundaries.

A few years later, Justice William R. Day, writing for the majority in Caminetti v. U.S., 242 U.S. 470 (1917), significantly broadened the application of the Mann Act. This case concerned the trial and conviction of two young men from California who had transported two young women to Nevada for the purpose of having sexual intercourse. Having been charged with violating the Mann Act, the young men argued in their defense that the law did not apply because the young women had participated in the trip knowingly and willingly. Justice Day rejected this contention, arguing that the law was not intended to punish only those expeditions undertaken for the purpose of financial gain. He wrote that the wording of the law was so plain that there was no question of Congress’s intent. He further argued that Congress had power to keep the ‘‘channels of commerce’’ free from immoral activity.

Although the Mann Act was not used extensively to prosecute activities such as those resulting in these two cases, the precedents set in Hoke and Caminetti were cited repeatedly in the ensuing decades as evidence of the intent of the U.S. Supreme Court’s support for a broad interpretation of the power of Congress under the commerce clause. The act gradually fell into disuse and, by the 1960s, was no longer enforced.


References and Further Reading

  • Criminal Law Statutory Offenses. Liability of Women Transported for Conspiracy to Violate Mann Act, Harvard Law Review 46 (January 1933): 520–521.
  • Interstate Immorality: The Mann Act and the Supreme Court, Yale Law Journal 56 (May 1947): 718–730.
  • Langum, David. Crossing Over the Line: Legislative Morality and the Mann Act. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Caminetti v. U.S., 242 U.S. 470 (1917)
  • Hoke v. U.S., 227 U.S. 308 (1913)

See also Interstate Commerce; Rape; Sex and Criminal Justice