Saturday, February 17, 2007

Wilson v. Melvin II: "They Must Have Been Very Incredulous Indeed"

Justice George Tompkins, whom we have encountered before, wrote the decision for the unanimous Supreme Court of Missouri. After describing the facts, Justice Tompkins discussed the court's earlier decisions, focusing particularly on Julia v. McKinney. I have reviewed Julia at length in earlier posts. Based on his review, Justice Tomkins reaffirmed the general rule that a slave did not become free merely by "traveling" through a free state or territory with his master. However, he gave traveling a restrictive definition. It required continual movement with only "necessary" stops:

"[Traveling] should last so long as might be necessary according to the common modes of traveling, to accomplish [the slaveholder's] journey through the State. If accident should happen to the emigrant, which, in ordinary cases, would make it reasonable and prudent to suspend his journey a short time, we think he might do so without incurring a forfeiture [i.e., loss of his slave], if he resumes his journey as soon as he safely could. Something more than mere convenience, or ease of the emigrant, ought to intervene to save him from a forfeiture. Something of the nature of necessity should exist before he would, or ought, to be exempted from the forfeiture."

So measured, Justice Tompkins held, the jury instructions were "wrong." In effect, Justice Tompkins held that it was irrelevant whether Melvin had used Wilson as a slave in Illinois. It was also irrelevant that Melvin had kept his wagon loaded. The sole question was whether Melvin "made any unnecessary delay in Illinois."

Justice Tompkins's observations about the case make clear that his decision was based on no mere technicality. He was angry that the trial judge had given "misleading" instructions, and he did not believe that any reasonable jury could rule against Wilson. He came close to saying in so many words that he believed that Melvin's defense -- that he had not intended to reside in Illinois -- was a lie that no one could believe:

"[B]ut it being proved that he [Melvin] stayed there [in Illinois] for three or four weeks before he went to St. Louis, and that, in a very short time, he returned and made a crop of corn, and remained in the State to gather and sell it. If they [the jury] believed that the defendant did this, without any intention of domiciliating himself therein, they must have been very incredulous indeed. So that even admitting that it was in evidence, that the defendant had, when he left home, meditated a journey through Illinois to Missouri, it appears that the jury ought, in conformity with this instruction, to have found for the plaintiff. Because, then, all the instructions given by the court appear to me to be calculated to mislead a jury."

The court therefore reversed the judgment against Wilson and remanded for a new trial "to be proceeded in conformably [sic] to this opinion."

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