Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Slave Freedom Suits in Missouri: A Review

I have now discussed six cases decided by the Supreme Court of Missouri between 1824 and 1836: Winny v. Whitesides (1824); Merry v. Tiffin (1827); Milly v. Smith (1829); Julia v. McKinnney (1833); Nat v. Ruddle (1834); and Rachael v. Walker (1836). In each, the issue was whether Missouri courts should award a slave his or freedom because that slave had, at some point in the past, resided in a free state or territory.

The cases are remarkable. In each, the Supreme Court held that Missouri courts should apply the law of the free state or territory if the slave had resided there. Although the court drew the line at truly transitory presence, the court interpreted “residence” broadly. Although it characterized a master’s loss of his slave as a “forfeiture,” it repeatedly rejected attempts by slaveholders to narrow the definition of residence in lawyerly ways that would probably not have raised many eyebrows. To the contrary, the court expressed its frustration with slaveholders continued to contest what the court regarded as well-settled legal precedent.

The cases also suggest that the slaveholder litigants were not the only people unhappy with the court’s rulings. In rendering its decisions, the court was repeatedly forced to reverse jury instructions given by the state Circuit Court in St. Louis. Trial judges seem to have been sympathetic to slaveholder concerns and were interpreting the Supreme Court’s precedents to avoid or at least reduce their impact on slaveholders.

Finally, and perhaps most worthy of note, is what the cases do not say. There is no indication that even slaveholders were arguing that Missouri courts should not give some effect to the laws of the free states and territories. There is no suggestion that even slaveholders were contending that Missouri should simply apply its own law and ignore the law of other states and territories. Such contentions were apparently too outlandish for even determined slaveholders to make in the 1820s and 1830s.

I’m sure that you know where I am going by now. In the early 1850s, all this will change. In installments to follow, I will discuss the Supreme Court of Missouri’s decision in Scott v. Emerson, 15 Mo. 576, 1852 WL 4171 (1852). The United States Supreme Court’s later decision in
Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), is far more famous (or infamous); but it is the decision of the Supreme Court of Missouri – reversing almost thirty years of state law – that made the later decision necessary – and possible.

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