Saturday, February 17, 2007

Slave Freedom Law in Missouri in the 1840s: "This Anomalous Character"

We have seen that, between 1824 and 1837, the Supreme Court of Missouri decided at least seven slave freedom suits. After 1837, a lull ensued; the court did not decide its next slave freedom suit until 1845.

The reason for the lull is unknown. Sometimes, these things just happen. It is possible to speculate, however, that law as laid down by the Supreme Court was at last understood. The fact that the law was settled meant that fewer cases went to trial, and in those that did the Circuit Court in St. Louis delivered proper instructions. The parties therefore understood that there was no point to an appeal.

By the mid-1840's, a harsher wind was beginning to blow. In 1845 and 1847, the Supreme Court of Missouri decided two cases, Chouteau v. Pierre, 9 Mo. 3, 1845 WL 3817 (1845) and Charlotte v. Chouteau, 11 Mo. 193, 1847 WL 3811 (1847). Although the decisions did not change the existing law, they clearly reflected a more crabbed approach to slave freedom suits.

The cases were factually related: the two plaintiffs, Pierre and Charlotte, were brother and sister (or at least half-brother and half-sister). Their mother, Rose, "was a negress, and was born in Montreal, in Lower Canada, about the year 1768." In about 1791, she was taken to Prairie du Chien, in the Northwest Territory. She remained there until about 1794. In 1795 she was taken to St. Louis. Pierre was born in Missouri, probably in the late 1790s, and lived there in slavery for over forty years. It is not clear whether Charlotte was born before or after her brother. By the 1840s, Rose was presumably dead, having lived in slavery her entire life.

In both suits, the siblings claimed that they were free due to their mother's residences. First, they asserted that slavery had been forbidden in Canada while their mother was there. Second, they asserted that her residence in the Northwest Territory in the 1790s made her free.

Without overruling previous cases, both decisions signaled a less generous view of slave freedom law. For example, the court held that Rose's residence in Northwest Territory did not free her children. Although the Northwest Ordinance was passed in 1787, the court conducted historical research and concluded that the British did not physically evacuate Prairie du Chien (where Rose resided) until mid-1796. Therefore, the Northwest Ordinance did not have "any force or validity" at Prairie du Chien in 1791-94, and Rose "never could have acquired any rights under" it.

More important, however, is the tone. Charlotte v. Choueau, the 1847 case, concludes with the following rhetoric, not encountered in earlier cases, that bodes ill for the future, for it suggests that the court is beginning to question the extent to which Missouri should observe the laws of free states and territories:

The instructions asked by the plaintiff [slave] need no particular comment. Their general spirit is not in conformity to the policy of our laws or the principles heretofore adjudicated by our courts. Whatever may be the policy of other governments, it has not been the policy of this State, to favor the liberation of negroes from that condition in which the laws and usages have placed the mass of their species. On the contrary, our statute expressly throws the burden of establishing a right to freedom upon the petitioner, and the provision is both wise and humane. Neither sound policy nor enlightened philanthropy should encourage, in a slaveholding State, the multiplication of a race whose condition could be neither that of freemen nor of slaves, and whose existence and increase, in this anomalous character, without promoting their individual comforts or happiness, tend only to dissatisfy and corrupt those of their own race and color remaining in a state of servitude. Different principles and other presumptions may be very safely and perhaps very wisely indulged in where the institution of slavery has never existed or has been entirely abolished.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails