Monday, September 28, 2009

Groves v. Slaughter: Some Context

Several years ago, I wrote a number of posts, the first of which is here, on an 1841 United States Supreme Court decision entitled Groves v. Slaughter. Very briefly, the case involved a contract for the purchase of slaves. Robert Slaughter imported the slaves into Mississippi in 1835 and 1836. On about December 20, 1836, Slaughter sold them to John W. Brown, apparently a Mississippi planter in the Natchez area. Brown paid for them by issuing two promissory notes payable to the order of R.M. Roberts, his banker at the Commercial Bank at Natchez. Roberts then indorsed the note over to Slaughter. Two other men, Moses Groves and James Graham, also indorsed the notes. These indorsements made the indorsers - and in effect Brown's bank - liable for the note, security that Slaughter probably demanded to insure payment.

When the notes came due at the end of 1837 and 1838, however, Brown and other responsible parties refused to pay. Slaughter sued in federal court in Louisiana. In response, the defendants asserted that they did not have to pay "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 merchandise or for sale after 1 May, 1833."

The Constitution of the State of Mississippi, adopted in 1832, provided in the 2d section, title "slaves," as follows:

"The introduction of slaves into this state as merchandise or for sale shall be prohibited from and after 1 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.

In Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South, Lacy K. Ford provides some historical context concerning Mississippi’s wavering approach to the slave trade and the provision of the Mississippi Constitution at issue in Groves. The state, like most others in the deep south, was deeply conflicted about the introduction of additional slaves. On the one hand, planters and aspiring planters clamored for more slaves for their fields. On the other side stood fear of slave revolt. As the state became blacker through imports, many believed that the risks of revolt grew, particularly if the imports tended to be unruly and rebellious rejects dumped on the lower south by upper south masters eager to be rid of them. In the words of one white Mississippian, “We repose on a volcano.”

The result was state policy that gyrated wildly during the 1820s and 1830s. Going back to 1817, the State’s original constitution guaranteed to immigrants the right to bring slaves with them when they came to settle, but expressly authorized the legislature to ban the importation of slaves “as merchandise”. The legislature had used this power to regulate, but not to ban, slave imports. In 1822, the legislature enacted a “character test” by which commercial importers – slave traders – had to obtain character references for the slaves they were importing. In 1825 the legislature added a tax of 2.5% on all slaves purchased at auction, but after an outcry the tax was reduced to 1.0% in 1826.

In 1832, Mississippi held a constitutional convention. Although the convention was called for unrelated reasons – primarily to draft a more democratic state constitution – the recent Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia prompted delegates to use it as an opportunity to increase white safety. “Ultimately, an unlikely coalition of Natchez area planters and piney woods whites placed a provision in the proposed constitution prohibiting the introduction [of] slaves 'as Merchandise' after March 1, 1833.” The Natchez planters benefited because the decrease in supply would force in-state residents to purchase their excess slaves at increased prices. Piney woods yeomen simply wanted to avoid further blackening of the state.

The new constitution was approved, but the ban on the slave trade caused an uproar by planters in the still-growing black belt who demanded more slaves and resented having to purchase them from Natchez area planters at increased prices. As a result, the legislature declined to enact implementing legislation that set penalties and the like. Instead, that very year (1833), it approved and sent to the voters for ratification a proposed constitutional amendment revoking the ban, which was almost universally expected to pass.

In the ensuing vote in November 1833, a large majority of those who voted on the provision approved it. Unexpectedly, however, the amendment failed because it was not endorsed by a majority of all eligible voters. The result left the legislature uncertain and confused. It responded by reviving the old policy of taxing slave purchases at a rate of 2.5%. “Thus while the supreme law of Mississippi prohibited the importation of slaves as merchandise after March 1, 1833, the legislature not only approved no penalties or sanctions for violators but instead taxed what appeared to be an unconstitutional trade.”

Beginning in 1837, the Mississippi courts became involved. In the wake of the Panic of 1837, numerous purchasers defaulted on notes they had issued for the purchase of slaves. In suits by the note holders, the defendants argued that the notes were invalid and unenforceable because they were issued in connection with transactions that were unconstitutional and thus void. “In a series of sometimes inconsistent decisions, results-oriented state courts in Mississippi tended to void debts planters owed slave traders but upheld debts that purchasers of slaves owed indigenous Mississippi slaveholders.”

The slave traders, who were citizens of states other than Mississippi, figured out that they could bring their suits in federal court by invoking diversity jurisdiction (where the parties are citizens of different states), and they began doing just that. Robert Slaughter was one of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails