Sunday, May 20, 2007

Groves v. Slaughter I: The Interstate Slave Trade

In his book An Imperfect Union, Paul Finkelman argues that passages in the Supreme Court decision in Groves v. Slaughter (1841) could support a ruling reversing Lemmon v. People. I therefore thought I would take a close look at the case.

Groves v. Slaughter, 40 U.S. 449 (1841), was actually two cases, although they involved the same transaction. Both arose out the sale of slaves by Robert Slaughter to John W. Brown (not the John Brown!) in Natchez, Mississippi on December 20, 1836.

Sometime in 1835 or 1836, Slaughter, presumably a slave trader (and a very wealthy one, given the attorneys he later hired, as described below), brought a number of slaves into the Mississippi “as merchandize, and for sale.” In doing so, Slaughter paid a tax imposed by the Mississippi legislature. Brown purchased some or all of these slaves on December 20, 1836. Brown was apparently a resident of Mississippi and intended to employ the slaves in that state.

In partial payment of his purchase, Brown signed two promissory notes, one in the amount of $7,875, payable twenty-four months later, and the other in the amount of $7,000, payable twelve months later. In both cases, Brown made the notes payable to the order of one R.M. Roberts. For example, the $7,000 note stated as follows:
Natchez, December 20th, 1836.

Twelve months after date, I promise to pay to R. M. Roberts, or order, the sum of seven thousand dollars, for value received, payable and negotiable at the Commercial Bank of Natchez, state of Mississippi.


Roberts then indorsed the notes over Slaughter, and two other men, Moses Groves and James Graham, indorsed the notes as well. The indorsements were a device to provide additional security to Slaughter. By adding their indorsements, Roberts, Groves and Graham became liable on the notes and in effect guaranteed their payment. I am guessing here, but the indorsers were probably officers of the Commercial Bank at Natchez, where the notes were payable.

When the notes came due, Slaughter made demand for payment. (He seems to made his demands to the indorsers, confirming that it was their credit, not Brown’s, that supported the transaction.) The indorsers refused to pay. Slaughter then commenced separate suits on the two notes, in April 1838 and February 1839, in the United States Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Again, I am guessing, but I assume that Slaughter filed suit in federal court based on diversity of citizenship – presumably he was citizen of the State of Louisiana, and all of the defendants were citizens of Mississippi.

In both cases, the indorsers defended their refusal to pay on the ground that the transaction was illegal and therefore void. To quote the Supreme Court syllabus, they argued

that the cause or consideration for which the notes were given was null and void, the notes were null and void, and of no effect; because the contracts on which they are found were in direct violation of the constitution of the state of Mississippi, which expressly prohibits the introduction of slaves into that state, as merchandize, or for sale, after the first day of May 1833.

The provision of the Mississippi Constitution of 1832 upon which the indorsers relied appeared in Article VII. That Article had a separate subdivision, entitled “Slaves.” Section 2 of that subdivision provided as follows:
The introduction of slaves into this state, as merchandize, or for sale, shall be prohibited from and after the first day of May 1833: provided, that actual settler or settlers shall not be prohibited from purchasing slaves, in any state in this Union, and bringing them into this state for their own individual use, till the year 1845.

The Circuit Court rendered judgment in favor of Slaughter and against the indorsers, holding that the notes were enforceable. The indorsers appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The cast of attorneys who argued the case before the Supreme Court was stunning. Henry D. Gilpin and Robert J. Walker (pictured) represented the indorsers. Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Walter Jones represented Slaughter.

The Supreme Court report summarizes the arguments. The summary of Henry Clay’s argument provides some sense of the dramatic oratory for which he is famous. At the outset, he provided an arresting description of the tremendous scope and importance of interstate slave transactions to the economies of the southern states -- including his native state of Kentucky:
Clay, for the defendant in error, said, the questions to be decided in this case, involved more than $3,000,000, due by citizens of the state of Mississippi, to citizens of Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky and other slave states. The magnitude of the cause is shown by the increase of slaves in the state of Mississippi, from 1830 to 1840. In 1830, the slave population was about 65,000. In 1840, it had increased to upwards of 190,000. The greater portion of this increase took place about the time the contracts on which these suits were brought were made. Within the period of seven years, from 1830 to 1837, the increase had been more than 74,000. A large portion of this number had been introduced into the state, as merchandize, or for sale, by non-residents. The universal habit of all the planting states has been, to buy slaves on credit, leaving the product of planting to pay for them. Tens of thousands of slaves have been introduced, and contracts made by citizens of Mississippi to pay for them on time; and now the question is, whether these contracts shall be extinguished, by an ex post facto construction of the constitution of the state?
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