Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Rachael v. Walker III: Justice McGirk Becomes Annoyed

As you may recall, the attorney for Walker, Rachael’s owner, claimed that Rachael’s stays at Fort Snelling (now in Minnesota) and Prairie du Chien, Michigan, did not make her free due to “necessity” – Stockton, Rachael’s owner at the time, was an officer in the U.S. Army and was posted to those sites.

Justice Matthias McGirk of the Supreme Court of Missouri expressed annoyance verging on disgust with the repeated attempts of slaveowners to avoid what he regarded as well-settled law. “It seems that the ingenuity of counsel and the interest of those disposed to deal in slave property, will never admit anything to be settled in regard to this question.” He therefore found it necessary “to state again the principles on which this court has heretofore rested in the many decisions heretofore made in regard to this ordinance.” He then reviewed some of those cases, including Winny v. Whitesides (1824) and Julia v. McKinney (1833).

The court then laced into Walker’s defense, denying that “necessity” required Stockton to bring a slave into free territory:

“In that case [Julia v. McKinney], the court say there should be something like necessity existing, to justify the owner of a slave to keep such slave in the country, so as to save a forfeiture. The counsel [for Walker] insist on a necessity as regards the owner to stay and abide in the Missouri territory and Michigan for more than two years, and during all that time to keep the plaintiff there as a slave. It is said the officer was under orders from the government to remain there where he did, and therefore a necessity existed which brings him within the reason of the decision in Julia’s case. This plea of necessity, is well answered by Mr. Spalding for the plaintiff, which answer is, that though it be true that the officer was bound to remain where he did, during all the time he was there, yet no authority of law or the government compelled him to keep the plaintiff there as a slave.”

Justice McGirk then provided a hypothetical that amounted to a reductio ad absurdum:

“[S]hall it be said, that because an officer of the army owns slaves in Virginia, that when as officer and soldier, he is required to take command of a post in the non-slave holding States or territories, he thereby has a right to take with him as many slaves, as will suit his interests and convenience? It surely cannot be the law; if this be true, then it is also true that the convenience or supposed convenience of the officer repeals as to him and others who have the same character, the ordinance and the act of 1821 admitting Missouri into the Union, and also the prohibitions of the several laws and constitutions of the non-slaveholding states.”

He also dismissed the argument that there should be no forfeiture because Stockton’s slaveownership (if that’s a word!) was de minimis:

“But it is said . . . that the plaintiff was only employed as a body servant, to induce the belief of the fact that the service she performed was necessary, or perhaps to establish the fact that he officer has a right to a family servant. We are yet to learn that the law, which gives to officers servants of a certain sort, authorize such officers to hold slaves in lieu of such servants, and in places forbidden by the ordinance.”

The bottom line, according to Justice McGirk, was that Stockton held Rachael as a slave in free territory as “his voluntary act, done without any other reason than that of convenience,” not necessity. As a result, both Stockton “and those claiming under him must be holden to abide the consquences of introducing slavery both in Missouri territory and Michigan, contrary to law. The judgment of the Circuit Court is reversed – the cause is remanded for a new trial.”

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