Friday, March 16, 2007

Marie Louise v. Marot: "Being free for one moment"

Having examined a number of Missouri slave freedom cases, let's turn to another State. Hmmm. Let's try . . . Louisiana.

In Marie Louise v. Marot, 9 La. 473, 1836 WL 864 (1836), the plaintiff sought freedom for her daughter, Josephine. She asserted that the defendants had taken Josephine, a slave, to France, "a country in which slavery is not tolerated, and that she thereby became free." Upon their return to Louisiana, the defendants "maliciously imprisoned" Josephine.

The case was tried in Louisiana state district court in June 1835. At trial, the evidence established the facts as alleged. Among other things, Josephine and her mother somehow prevailed upon two presumably white "witnesses of unimpeached credibility" to testify that, under French law, "slavery or involuntary servitude is not tolerated" and operated "so as to produce an immediate emancipation."

The trial judge delivered to the jury a set of instructions that indicated that Josephine was entitled to her freedom if she had resided in France, however briefly:

"That if the plaintiff's daughter, Josephine, was taken by the person claiming her services as a slave to a foreign country, where slavery does not exist, and is not tolerated, and by the laws of which such slave would be entitled to her liberty, for the purpose of residence, even temporarily, that is, for any other purpose than mere passage through such country, and perhaps even then, the person so taken to such country would become free, and that freedom once impressed upon an individual was indelible; and the status, or condition in society of such party could not be changed . . ..

"It is for the jury to decide the fact, whether the plaintiff's daughter, Josephine, was taken to France on a mere passage through the country, or for the purpose of temporary residence. That in the opinion of the court, it makes no difference, that the donee or owner of the slave, as the defendant, was a minor at the time of the voyage to France, and could give no legal consent; because the condition of freedom was de facto impressed on the person held to service, so carried to a foreign country, without having ran away or escaped . . .; but the right to personal freedom by such residence, in such foreign country, was acquired by, and stamped upon the person so previously held to such service, and such a person is entitled to freedom."

The jury returned a verdict "that Josephine is entitled to her freedom," although it denied her money damages. The defendants appealed.

The Supreme Court of Louisiana heard the appeal in May 1836. After reciting the factual and procedural background, Justice George Mathews, Jr., writing for a unanimous court, affirmed the judgment below in a single paragraph. After describing "the benign and liberal effect of the laws and customs of" France, as described above, Justice Mathews held that Josephine was free and could not be re-enslaved:

This fact [concerning the nature of French law] was submitted to the consideration of the last jury, who tried the cause under a charge of the judge, which we consider to be correct, and was found in favor of the party whose liberty is claimed. Being free for one moment in France, it was not in the power of her former owner to reduce her again to slavery.

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