Saturday, February 17, 2007

Wilson v. Melvin I: A Careful Slaveowner

Before I get to Scott v. Emerson (1852), however, there are a few more cases I want to look at briefly.

Wilson v. Melvin, 4 Mo. 592, 1837 WL 2327 (1837), is probably the high-water mark for slave freedom suits in Missouri. As usual, let's start with the facts.

In March 1834, the defendant, Daniel Melvin, moved from Tennessee to St. Clair County, Illinois, where his son already lived. Melvin brought with him two slaves, one of whom was the plaintiff, Daniel Wilson. (Interestingly, this is the first slave freedom case I have discussed in which the caption identifies the slave by his last name rather than his first.)

Melvin moved with the apparent intention of residing in Illinois: he came with a wagon and team. However, before he left or when he arrived, he was warned that, if his slaves established residence in Illinois, the slaves would obtain their freedom. He therefore parked the wagon on his son's property and did not unload it. "He appears to have been impressed with the belief that unloading his wagon would have been evidence that he had a fixed place of abode." He rented land nearby "and made a crop of corn on rented ground."

Melvin also apparently took steps to avoid using his slaves as slaves while in Illinois. During this period, "the slaves did little except to feed the horses." It also seems that Wilson, the slave, hired himself out on odd jobs and probably gave most of his pay to Melvin, but there was no evidence that Melvin had arranged this work or even encouraged it.

After a month or so, Melvin took his two slaves to St. Louis, where he sold them. Wilson then brought this suit in the state Circuit Court of St. Louis County.

At trial, the Circuit Court gave the jury quite liberal instructions. Among other things, the court instructed that "[i]f they shall be of the opinion that the defendant [Melvin], being a domiciliated resident of the State of Illinois, used the plaintiff as his slave therein, they shall find for the plaintiff [Wilson]." The court gave a similar instruction concerning hiring out. Presumably because there was no clear evidence that Melvin had actually used or hired out Wilson as a slave in Illinois, the jury nonetheless returned a verdict in favor Melvin and against Wilson.

Wilson then appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri. In the next post, we shall see the Supreme Court stretching to reverse.

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