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Freedom suits were lawsuits in the Thirteen Colonies and the United States filed by enslaved people against slaveholders to assert claims to freedom, often based on descent from a free maternal ancestor, or time held as a resident in a free state or territory.
The right to petition for freedom descended from English common law and allowed people to challenge their enslavement or indenture. Petitioners challenged slavery both directly and indirectly, even if slaveholders generally viewed such petitions as a means to uphold rather than undermine slavery. Beginning with the colonies in North America, legislatures enacted slave laws that created a legal basis for "just subjection;" these were adopted or updated by the state and territorial legislatures that superseded them after the United States gained independence. These codes also enabled enslaved persons to sue for freedom based on wrongful enslavement.
While some cases were tried during the colonial period, the majority of petitions for freedom were heard during the antebellum period in the border or the Southern United States. After the American Revolution, most northern states abolished slavery and were considered "free." The United States Congress prohibited slavery in some newly established territories, and some new states were admitted to the union as free states. The rise in travel and migration of masters with slaves between free and slave states resulted in conditions that gave rise to slaves suing for freedom. Many free states had residency limits for masters who brought slaves into their territory; after that time, the slave would be considered free. Some slaves sued for wrongful enslavement after being held in a free state.
Other grounds for suit were that the person was freeborn and illegally held in slavery, or that the person was illegally held because of being descended from a freeborn woman in the maternal line. The principle of partus sequitur ventrem, first incorporated into English colonial slavery law by a 1662 statute in Virginia, established that children's status was that of the mother. It was adopted into law by other English colonies, and the states of the United States.
In Saint Louis, Missouri records of nearly 300 petition cases have been found that were filed between 1807 and 1860, and in Washington, D.C. nearly 500 petition cases were filed in the same period. A large portion of cases, as much as one-third, either never went to trial or were settled out of court. In the early nineteenth century in St. Louis and in Washington, D.C., nearly half of the attorneys at the bar may have acted as counsel for slave petitions. In Missouri, the courts assigned an attorney to the petitioner if it accepted a freedom suit for hearing; some of the top attorneys in St. Louis defended slaves. After the 1830s, the number of petition cases gradually declined. But from 1800 to 1830, most of the bar in these cities tried a petition case.[page needed]
Before the end of the eighteenth century, some southern states began to make petitioning for freedom more difficult. Maryland, for example, in 1796 required that county courts serve as the court of original jurisdiction, rather than the General Court of the Western Shore, an appellate court. The county courts clearly would be more favorable to the interests and views of the local planters against whom these suits were often filed. The legislature also banned those with antislavery sympathies from serving on juries in freedom suits. Virginia passed a similar law on jury composition in 1798.
But, for a few decades, courts in slave states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri often respected the precedent of "once free, always free" established by free states. Until the late 1850s, they ruled that slaves who had been held in free states maintained their freedom even if brought back into slave states. Until the Civil War brought an end to slavery, thousands of freedom suits were tried in state courts across the country, with some slaves petitioning as high as the Supreme Court.
The act of writing petitions asking the courts for freedom has been a practice within North America dating back to the late 1600s. Some of the first petitions for freedom were not directed at the courts, but to the various colonial joint stock companies, such as the Dutch West India Company, which operated in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic area. During the early importation of enslaved laborers, the West India Company had no strict laws governing their status and condition. Enslaved persons were allowed to marry and raise families as long as they continued to work for the company. In this regard, many early petitions were by slaves attempting to obtain freedom on behalf of their nuclear families. In the antebellum period, women slaves were instrumental in seeking freedom to protect their children.
One of the earliest petitions on record dates to 1644. A group of eleven petitioners, not including their children, entreated the Council of New Netherland for freedom, based on the claim that it was impossible for them to support their growing families under slavery. The Dutch West India Company released these slaves on a plan of half-freedom; this allowed slaves their liberty in exchange for payment of an annual tributary to the company.[page needed] During early America and the first two decades of the colonial period, slavery had not become a racial caste within the area of Dutch authority. The Dutch West India Company freed many slaves between 1644 and 1664, when they lost control of their colony to England. These early petitioners did not base their claim for freedom on ethnicity but on the monetary realities of living in slavery and caring for a family. This line of argument quickly faded from the records.
The United States construction of slavery became associated with the African race and non-Christian peoples. In 1662 Virginia enacted a law that children born in the colony assumed their mother's social status; therefore, children of enslaved mothers were born into slavery. This principle from Roman law was adopted by other colonies (and later the slave states). The law also resulted in the children of white women and Native American women (after Indian slavery was abolished) being born free. Indian slavery was ended in Virginia in the early 18th century. Mixed-race descendants of Indian or white women struggled to gain freedom through their maternal lines. Petitioners focused primarily on proving their right to liberty through hereditary freedom claims.
During the years leading to the Revolutionary War, there was a rise in freedom suits submitted in Northern states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Many of these cases referred to the highly significant English case of Somerset v Stewart (1772). The ruling in the Somerset case held that slavery was inhumane and illegal on British soil. Lord Mansfield's opinion in the case was widely read and commented on in the colonies. Slavery, Lord Mansfield ruled, had no basis in "natural law" and could only be maintained through "positive law." As slavery had never been enacted by English law, it did not legally exist in England and no person on English soil could be held in bondage. Slaves in Virginia and Maryland learned of the Somerset decision. In the months and years following, petitioners used it as a weapon against enslavement.
Sir William Blackstone, the leading authority on English law and a professor at the University of Oxford, had already published his Commentaries on the Laws of England, in which he laid down the most complete argument to date that slavery was incompatible with free societies. Although admitting that slavery might have a legal basis in the colonial plantation societies of the Atlantic world, Blackstone wrote,
pure and proper slavery does not, nay cannot, subsist in England; such I mean, whereby an absolute and unlimited power is given to the master over the life and fortune of the slave. And indeed it is repugnant to reason, and the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist any where.
On January 6, 1773, black petitioners submitted the first of five appeals written during the year, asking for a range of rights, to Governor Hutchinson and the General Court of Massachusetts. Though signed only by a slave named Felix, the document petitioned for the freedom and rights of all slaves in the Massachusetts colony. While the tone of the petition is cautious, it speaks to the "unhappy State and Condition" in which enslaved persons are forced to live. Abolitionists later published the petition as a pamphlet, along with letters and other abolitionist documents. Felix's petition expressed the talk of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that was circulating around Massachusetts and other American colonies before the American Revolution. No record of a response from the Massachusetts General Court exists. Although slavery was never explicitly abolished or prohibited in the new Massachusetts Constitution after the Revolutionary War, rulings in freedom suits by Mum Bett and Quock Walker established that its representation of rights was incompatible with slavery, and remaining slaves effectively gained their freedom.
With the outbreak of war, thousands of enslaved blacks gained freedom during the Revolution. Enslaved persons during these years found their freedom through military service, petitions for freedom, and manumissions by colonists who believed that "every man is created equal" and manumitted their slaves. By the end of the war, more than 5,000 enslaved African Americans had survived their military service with the Continental Army and joined the new America as free men, vastly increasing the number of free black people in the newly formed states.[page needed]
After much discussion about slavery, delegates from northern and southern states reached a compromise, drafting a federal constitution for the United States that prohibited Federal banning of the slave trade for two decades; Article V effectively protected the trade until 1808, giving the States 20 years to resolve this issue. Although northerners hoped that slavery would decline, during that time, planters in states of the Lower South imported tens of thousands of slaves, more than during any previous two decades in colonial history. As further protection for slavery, the delegates approved Section 2 of Article IV, which prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled to them from another state, and required the return of chattel property to owners.
During the years after the revolution, from 1780 to 1804 Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey created abolition plans that in total abolished slavery in these states by 1809, often on a gradual basis by first freeing children born to enslaved mothers, and gradually freeing enslaved adults. In New York the last slaves were not freed until 1827.
Also moved by revolutionary ideals, legislators in Southern states enacted manumission laws that made it easier for slaveholders to free their slaves, under certain circumstances. Maryland's 1796 law was typical: slaveholders were allowed to manumit only healthy enslaved people under the age of 45 who would not become a public charge. During the first two decades after the war, planters freed numerous slaves, particularly in the Upper South, where economies and crops were already changing. In the Upper South, the proportion of free blacks went from less than one percent of all blacks to more than 10 percent, even as the total number of slaves was increasing through importation.
The presence of an increased number of free people of color (free blacks), particularly in the North and Upper South, altered the prevailing racial categories. By 1810, 75 percent of all African Americans in the North were free. By 1840, virtually all African Americans in the North were free. Previously the color of one's skin was associated with slavery, black (or ethnic African) indicating enslaved and white indicating free. After the Revolution, when tens of thousands of African Americans gained their freedom, either by having volunteered or being manumitted, racial enslavement appeared inconsistent. Free blacks subverted the logic of racially based enslavement.
After invention of the cotton gin made profitable the processing of short-staple cotton, there was a major push by whites to develop lands in the Deep South for such cultivation. This greatly increased the demand for slave labor, especially after the US ended the legal Atlantic slave trade in 1808. The rate of manumission fell sharply in southern states. Through the domestic slave trade, some one million slaves were transported from the Upper South to the Deep South in the following years. Most southern states tightened restrictions on manumission, effectively ending it. They enacted laws requiring legislative approval for each act of manumission, making it so difficult that few slaveholders pursued this, even for their own mixed-race children. At the same time African Americans attempted to resist racialized definitions of freedom. Petitions for freedom suits were one of the most powerful strategies to redefine racial categories, claim freedom, and reconstitute families in the face of enslavement.
Petitions for freedom were lawsuits filed by enslaved persons against slaveholders asserting their right to freedom. The right to petition for freedom descended from English common law and allowed people to challenge their enslavement or indenture. While some cases were tried during the colonial period, the majority of petitions for freedom were heard during the antebellum period. Petitioners used a variety of arguments to obtain their freedom.
In 1662, Virginia enacted a law to determine the status of children born in the colony. It stated that children inherited the status of the mother, in contrast to English common law in England, which held that a child's social status was determined by the father. Other Southern colonies followed Virginia's lead and adopted this principle of partus sequitur ventrem, by which a child of an enslaved mother was born into slavery, regardless of the race or status of the father. As time went on, there were numerous generations of mixed-race slaves, some notable for being majority white, as were Sally Hemings and several of her siblings at Monticello. These six were the children of the planter John Wayles, father-in-law of Thomas Jefferson.
But this law also resulted in mixed-race children of white women being born into freedom. Virginia and other colonies ended Indian slavery in the early 18th century. Spain ended Indian slavery in colonial areas under its rule in 1769. After those changes, petitioners sometimes based their claim to freedom on descent from an Indian woman in a slave's maternal line.
Dozens of petitions for freedom were filled on the basis that the petitioner was descended from a free woman, and so, by law, was entitled to freedom. For an example of a freedom suit based upon the free status of a mother, see John Davis v. Hezekiah Wood, the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. In another case filed soon after the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase, Marguerite Scypion and her sisters petitioned in 1805 in Saint Louis, Missouri for freedom from slavery for them and their children based on descent from a Native American grandmother.
Petitioners for freedom often claimed that a promised manumission had not been fully executed. Charlotte Dupuy, a domestic slave of Henry Clay, in 1829 filed a freedom suit for her and her two children while they were living with Clay in Washington, DC, during his service as Secretary of State. Dupuy claimed that her previous master had promised to free her. The court required Clay to leave Dupuy in the capital until the case was settled, although he had completed his service and was returning to Kentucky. Dupuy was assigned to work for Clay's successor, Martin Van Buren, who paid her wages like a free laborer. The court ultimately ruled against Dupuy and she was returned to Clay in Kentucky. He finally freed her and her daughter ten years later, and her grown son later still.
Beginning in the 1790s after the Revolution, slaveholders manumitted an unprecedented number of African Americans in Maryland and Virginia. Historians have explained the numerous manumissions in three ways: as a consequence of Revolutionary ideals, religious fervor, and depressed crop prices in the Upper South decreasing the need for labor. In addition, changes in types of crops, from tobacco to mixed crops, had decreased the need for labor.
But historians of Maryland have examined wills and deeds of manumission and found that only a small percentage (under 5%) mention revolutionary ideals as a motivation. Masters sometimes freed slaves for "loyal service." Religious motivations were also seldom noted. Instead, in some cases slaveholders used manumission as a tool to maintain a varied labor force, retaining and controlling labor under a system related to indenture. With as much as two-thirds of manumissions in Maryland structured as "term slavery," African Americans contested many of these arrangements, some of them in the courts. For an example of a freedom suit with a dispute over "term slavery," see Lizette Lee et al. v. Augustus Preuss and related cases, Circuit Court of the District of Columbia.
States passed numerous laws to regulate the slave trade and the status of persons. Under the Act of Assembly of Virginia Act of 1785, Chapter 77, enslaved persons who were born in another state and brought into Virginia after the date of the act would be freed after spending one year in the state. The act provided an exception, stating that if a slaveholder were to bring slaves into Virginia, he had to make an oath within 60 days of his arrival that he had not imported his slaves from out of the country, and had not brought them into Virginia with the intention of selling them.
Under Maryland Act of Assembly 1796, Chapter 67, any enslaved person brought into the state by an owner for the purpose of sale, would be granted freedom. A proviso stated that any person who intended to settle in Maryland was lawfully able to import his slaves from out of state so long as his slaves remained in the state for three years. If they were removed from the state before the three years had elapsed, the slaves would be granted freedom. Along with creating legal opportunities for slaves to gain freedom, the 1796 Maryland Act of Assembly also secured for petitioners in freedom suits the right "to have the benefit of a trial by jury." With this right, enslaved persons were given the power to petition their owners in court based on being illegally transported into or out of the state.
Many petitions for freedom were filed based upon violations of these acts governing the transport of enslaved persons across state lines. For an example of such a freedom suit, see Matilda Derrick v. George Mason & Alexander Moore in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. In 1840 xxxx, a free black, was persuaded to go with some new acquaintances from Saratoga Springs, New York to Washington, DC, on the promise of work with a circus. There he was drugged, kidnapped and imprisoned east of the Potomac by a slave trader. He was beaten to keep quiet and transported to the Deep South by ship to be sold again as a slave in Louisiana. After 12 years he finally got word to friends and was freed by an attorney representing the New York state government. Because the jurisdictions could not agree on where the crimes took place, his kidnappers were never prosecuted.
After the Revolution, northern states abolished slavery, and the United States became divided into free and slave states. In addition, Congress established some new territories as free, and as new states were admitted to the Union, they determined whether they would allow slavery. With the development of western territories, there was an expanded amount of travel and migration by masters accompanied by slaves between slave states and free ones. In addition, some military personnel had slaves and took them on assignment into free territories.
Pennsylvania abolished slavery and enacted legislation that after six months' residency, slaves brought into the state by slaveholders were entitled to their freedom. This law was applied to the members of the new federal government that was temporarily established in Philadelphia. Many of its members were slaveholders, including Southern legislators and administration appointees, as well as President George Washington. He was known to arrange to have his slaves taken out of the state temporarily before the six-month limit in order to avoid the residency requirement and risk their gaining freedom. At least two slaves from his household escaped to freedom in the North. Washington eventually replaced his domestic slaves by hiring German immigrants as servants to avoid the problem.
Some freedom suits were filed by slaves temporarily in New York and Massachusetts because of similar laws giving freedom to slaves brought into these states by their masters. Massachusetts began to rule that slaves whose masters brought them voluntarily into the state gained freedom immediately upon entering the state. Anti-slavery groups in Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts were on the alert to aid slaves who were brought into the free states and wanted to gain freedom. They conducted some daring rescues, often hiding slaves, testifying for them in court, or sometimes helping them reach Canada in order to be beyond the reach of slave catchers and, after 1850, the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act.
By 1824, the courts in Missouri established the precedent of "once free, always free," ruling that slaves taken voluntarily by masters into free states gained their freedom according to those states' laws, and could not be returned to slavery if the master brought the person to the slave state of Missouri. In addition, in freedom suits, "[c]ourts in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi also upheld the freedom of slaves who had lived in a free state or territory."
Recognizing the growing number of manumissions and petition cases after the Revolution, most southern states began to make petitioning more difficult. For example, in 1796, Maryland required that county courts serve as the court of original jurisdiction for petition for freedom cases, rather than the General Court of the Western Shore, an appellate court. The county courts were considered to be more favorable to the interests and views of local planters against whom these suits were often filed. That year, Maryland passed a law banning persons of known anti-slavery sympathies from serving on juries in freedom suits. Virginia enacted a similar law in 1798.
Thousands of petition cases were tried in state courts across the country. In Saint Louis, Missouri, records for nearly 300 petition cases have been found that were filed between 1807 and 1860. In Washington, D.C., nearly 500 petition cases were filed in the same period. Often jurors decided in favor of the enslaved. Slaves gained freedom in 37 percent of the cases in Saint Louis. A large portion of cases, as much as one-third, either never went to trial or were settled out of court.
To file petitions for freedom, enslaved plaintiffs demonstrated an impressive knowledge of their rights and an equally impressive sense of calculated risk. For the most part, persistence paid off, and petitioners who filed multiple suits were more likely to eventually succeed. Petitioners retained preeminent attorneys; in Washington, DC, they included Francis Scott Key, Richard Ridgely, John Law, William Wirt, Gabriel Duvall, and John Johnson. In St. Louis, if the court accepted a freedom suit, it assigned an attorney for the slave petitioner. Among the notable attorneys representing slaves in St. Louis was Edward Bates, future Attorney General under President Abraham Lincoln. During the early nineteenth century in St. Louis and in Washington, D.C., nearly half of the attorneys at the bar may have acted as counsel for slave petitions. After the 1830s, the number of petition cases gradually declined and the number of attorneys in the cities increased. But from 1800 to 1830, most of the bar in these cities tried a petition case.
Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother; and that if any Christian shall commit fornication with a Negro man or woman, he or she so offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act.
Missouri updated its slave law in 1824, providing for the right of a petitioner in freedom suits to xxxxx.
Located to connect the northern and southern portions of the United States, Washington, D.C., provided a unique venue for freedom suits due to its blending of both Maryland and Virginia law. Because the District comprised portions of Maryland and Virginia, the laws of both states were in effect within those regions of Washington. The District was divided into two counties: the portion lying east of the Potomac River was known as the County of Washington; the other part called the County of Alexandria.
Since the capital's formation in 1790, slavery was legal and prominent. The District of Columbia was the center of the domestic slave trade during the eighteenth century due to its ports on the Potomac River. However, the number of slaves declined over the next five decades from approximately 6,400 slaves in 1820 to 3,100 by 1860. The population of free blacks grew, and by 1860, free blacks out-numbered slaves by four to one. It was a center of culture and politics for free blacks.
In a 1796 revision of Maryland's general code, a non-importation law was ratified to stop visitors from coming into the state and selling their slaves for speculative purposes. This law hindered slaveholders moving into Washington and Georgetown from areas outside of Maryland by requiring them to remain residents for three years before selling their slaves. A number of slaves in Washington, D.C., petitioned for and won their freedom based on owner violations of this Maryland enactment. These petitions were heard by the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, consisting of one chief justice and two associate justices. Many judges who were later appointed to the US Supreme Court started in this lower court. Despite being a federal branch of the court system, the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia acted as both a lower and appellate court for nearby jurisdictions.
The papers of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia are held by the National Archives. The digital project O Say Can You See: Early Washington D.C., Law & Family has collected and digitized several hundred freedom suits and thousands of case files dating between 1800 and 1862 for public use, in order to reveal the social world of African Americans in Washington, both free and enslaved. Users of the archived materials are able to explore the cases, people, families, and selected stories discovered by researchers.
Missouri was the "Gateway to the West" and a slave state, but it was bordered by free states, including Illinois. In addition, it was a center for military personnel who were traveling to assignments in free territories, such as in the current state of Minnesota, and who resettled in Missouri. The Saint Louis circuit court heard hundreds of freedom suits. St. Louis developed its own network of people who supported slaves seeking freedom. Prominent attorneys were among those appointed as counsel by the court to argue for slaves seeking freedom. In 1824, the Missouri courts established the precedent known as "once free, always free", freeing slaves in Missouri based on their having been held by their masters illegally in free states or territories. This precedent was observed for decades until 1852 and the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, which ruled that Scott should have filed for freedom while in a free state.
A large corpus of freedom suits are available to researchers today in St. Louis and online. Some 301 files dating from 1814–1860 are among St. Louis Circuit Court Records discovered in the 1990s. They are also available for study online. These records show that within the state, jurors often decided in favor of the enslaved. In fact, slaves gained freedom in 57 percent of the cases in Saint Louis.
The first freedom suit in St. Louis was filed in 1805 by Marguerite Scypion, an African-Natchez woman. Briefly, she filed based on maternal descent from her Natchez grandmother. As the Spanish had ended Indian slavery in 1769, Scypion held that her mother, Marie-Jean Scypion, should have been freed at the time based on her Natchez ancestry, and that Marguerite herself was illegally held as a slave from birth. Having had an earlier ruling in her favor overturned on appeal, in 1826 Marguerite Scypion renewed her suit for freedom, filing against her current master Jean Pierre Chouteau, who headed one of the most prominent fur trading families in the city. She gained freedom for herself and all her mother's descendants in 1836, in a decision upheld by the US Supreme Court.