Freedom suits were lawsuits filed by enslaved people against slaveholders asserting their right to freedom.
The right to petition for freedom descended from English common law and allowed people to challenge their enslavement or indenture. Petitioners challenged slavery both directly and indirectly even if slaveholders generally viewed petitions as the exception that proved the rule and as a means to uphold rather than undermine slavery. Slave states, colonies and territories enacted slave laws that created a legal basis for “just subjection.” Their codes also provided for enslaved persons to sue on the basis of wrongful enslavement. While cases were tried during the colonial period, the majority of petitions for freedom were heard during the antebellum period in border or southern states. After the American Revolution, most northern states had abolished slavery, and the United States Congress prohibited it in some newly established territories.
In Saint Louis, Missouri nearly 300 petition cases were filed between 1807 and 1860 and in Washington, D.C. nearly 500 petition cases were filed in the same period. A large portion of cases, as much as one-third, either never went to trial or were settled out of court. In the early nineteenth century in St. Louis and in Washington, D.C., nearly half of the attorneys at the bar may have acted as counsel for slave petitions. Gradually, after the 1830s the number of petition cases declined and the number of attorneys grew. But from 1800 to 1830 most of the bar in these cities tried a petition case.
Recognizing the growing number of manumissions and petition cases being filed in the decades prior to the Civil War, most southern states began to make petitioning more difficult. Maryland, for example, in 1796 required that county courts serve as the court of original jurisdiction, rather than the General Court of the Western Shore, an appellate court. The county courts clearly would be more favorable to the interests and views of local planters against whom these suits were often filed. In Virginia in 1798 the legislature banned those with antislavery sympathies from serving on juries in freedom suits. Maryland did so in 1796. Until the Civil War brought an end to slavery thousands of freedom suits were tried in state courts across the country, with some slaves petitioning as high as the Supreme Court.
- 1 History
- 2 Arguments for freedom
- 3 Filing suit
- 4 Applicable laws
- 5 District of Columbia courts
- 6 Saint Louis, Missouri courts
- 7 Notable United States cases
- 8 Freedom suits in Great Britain
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Colonial petitions for freedom
The act of writing petitions asking the courts for freedom has been a practice within North America dating back to the late 1600s. Some of the first petitions for freedom were not directed at the courts, but to the various colonial joint stock companies such as the Dutch West India Company. During the early importation of enslaved laborers the West India Company had no strict laws governing their status and condition. Enslaved persons were allowed to marry and raise families as long as they continued to work for the company. In this regard, many early petitions were concerned with obtaining freedom for nuclear families, a trend that continues through antebellum petitions.
One of the earliest petitions on record dates back to 1644. A group of eleven petitioners, not including their children, entreated the Council of New Netherland for their freedom on the claim that it was impossible for them to support their growing families under slavery. The Dutch West India Company released these slaves on a plan of half-freedom; this allowed slaves their liberty in exchange for an annual tributary to the company. During early America and the first two decades of the colonial period freedom was not yet strictly associated with race and the Dutch West India Company freed many slaves between 1644 and 1664 when they lost control of the colony to England. These early petitioners did not base their claim for freedom on bloodline but on the monetary realities of living in slavery and caring for a family. This line of argument quickly faded from the records and as the African race becomes entwined with the American construction of slavery. Over the next decades petitioners focused on proving their right to liberty through hereditary freedom claims.
Suits for freedom during and after the Revolution
During the years leading to the Revolutionary War there was a rise in freedom suits submitted in Northern states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Many of these cases referred to the highly significant case of Somerset v. Stuart in 1772. The ruling in the Somerset case held that slavery was inhumane and illegal on British soil. Lord Mansfield’s opinion in the case was widely read and commented on in the colonies. Slavery, Lord Mansfield ruled, had no basis in "natural law" and could only be maintained through "positive law." As such, slavery did not exist in England and no person on English soil could be held in bondage. Slaves in Virginia and Maryland knew of the Somerset decision and in the months and years following used it as a weapon against their enslavement.
Sir William Blackstone, the leading authority on English law and a professor at the University of Oxford, had already published his Commentaries on the Laws of England in which he laid down the most complete argument to date that slavery was incompatible with free societies. Although admitting that slavery might have a legal basis in the colonial plantation societies of the Atlantic World, Blackstone wrote, "pure and proper slavery does not, nay cannot, subsist in England; such I mean, whereby an absolute and unlimited power is given to the master over the life and fortune of the slave. And indeed it is repugnant to reason, and the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist any where."
On January 6, 1773, the first of five appeals written during the year, asking for a range of rights, was submitted by black petitioners to Governor Hutchinson and the General Court of Massachusetts. Though signed by only one man, a slave named Felix, the document petitioned for the freedom and rights of all slaves in the Massachusetts colony. While the tone of the petition is cautious it speaks to the “unhappy State and Condition” in which enslaved persons are forced to live. The petition later went on to be published as a pamphlet along with letters and other abolitionist documents. Felix’s petition represented the talk of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that was circulating around Massachusetts, and other American colonies, before the American Revolution. No record of a response from the Massachusetts General Court exists and, since slavery was never outlawed in the Massachusetts Constitution, it is believed that Felix never earned his freedom.
With the outbreak of war, thousands of blacks made their way to freedom during the Revolution. Enslaved persons during these years found their freedom through military service, petitions for freedom and by those revolutionist who fully embodied the ideal that “every man is created equal” and manumitted their slaves. At the end of the war over 5,000 enslaved Africans had fought with the Continental Army and joined the new America as free men, vastly increasing the number of free black people in the newly formed states. The presence of free blacks altered the prevailing racial categories. Previously the color of one’s skin was associated with slavery, black indicating enslaved and white indicating free. After the Revolution when tens of thousands of African Americans gained their freedom, either by volunteering or manumission, racial enslavement appeared inconsistent. Free blacks appeared to subvert the logic of racially based enslavement.
During the years after the revolution from 1780 to 1804. Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey created emancipation plans that would outlaw slavery in the states by 1809. Southern states enacted manumission laws and allowed slaveholders to free their enslaved laborers under certain circumstances. Maryland’s 1796 law was typical: slaveholders could only manumit healthy enslaved people under the age of 45 who would not become a public charge. Over the nineteenth century southern lawmakers became increasingly concerned with writing stricter definitions of the boundaries of race as a means to solidify slavery and equate blackness with enslavement. At the same time African Americans attempted to resist these racialized definitions of freedom. Petitions were one of the most powerful strategies to redefine racial categories, claim freedom, and reconstitute families in the face of enslavement.
Arguments for freedom
Petitions for freedom were lawsuits filed by enslaved persons against slaveholders asserting their right to freedom. The right to petition for freedom descended from English common law and allowed people to challenge their enslavement or indenture. While cases were tried during the colonial period, the majority of petitions for freedom were heard during the antebellum period. Petitioners used a variety of arguments to obtain their freedom.
Petitioners for freedom often claimed that a promised manumission had not been fully executed. Beginning in the 1790s manumission liberated an unprecedented number of African Americans in Maryland and Virginia. Historians have explained the large number of manumissions in three ways: as a consequence of Revolutionary ideals, religious fervor, and depressed crop prices in the Upper South and demand for slave labor in Georgia and the cotton frontier. Historians have examined wills and deeds of manumission and found that a just a small percentage (under 5%) mention Revolutionary ideals as a motivation. Religious motivations were also relatively insignificant. Instead, manumission was a tool slaveholders used to maintain a variegated labor force. Manumission provided a means for slaveholders to retain and control labor. With as much as two-thirds of manumissions structured as “term slavery,” it is not surprising that many of these arrangements became contested and some of them in the courts. For an example of a freedom suit with a dispute over “term slavery,” see Lizette Lee et al. v. Augustus Preuss and related cases in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia.
There were numerous laws on the books of various states that could affect the freedom status of enslaved people. One of these was Maryland Act of Assembly 1796, Chapter 67. Under the law, any enslaved person brought into the state whose owner intended to sell him or her would be granted freedom. However, a proviso was attached to the law stating that any person who intended to settle in Maryland was lawfully able to import his slaves from out of state so long as his slaves remained in the state for three years. If they were removed from the state before the three years has elapsed, the slaves would be granted freedom. Along with creating legal opportunities for slaves to gain freedom, the 1796 Maryland Act of Assembly also secured petitioners the right “to have the benefit of a trial by jury.” With this right, enslaved persons were given the power to petition their owners in court based on the their illegal transport in or out of the state.
A similar law was present in Virginia. Under the Act of Assembly of Virginia Act of 1785, Chapter 77, enslaved persons who were born in another state and brought into Virginia after the date of the act would be freed after spending one year in the state. The act provided an exception to this rule, stating that if a slaveholder were to bring slaves into Virginia, he had to make an oath within sixty days of his arrival that he had not imported his slaves from out of the country, and had not brought them into Virginia with the intention of selling them.
Many petitions for freedom were filed based upon violations of these acts of assembly governing the importation of enslaved people. For an example of a freedom suit with a dispute over “term slavery,” see Matilda Derrick v. George Mason & Alexander Moore in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia.
Familial descent from a free woman
In 1662, Virginia enacted a law of hereditary slavery that stated a child born to an enslaved mother inherited her status as a slave. Other Southern states followed Virginia’s lead and assumed the same maternal inheritance of slavery. Dozens of petitions for freedom were filled on the basis that the petitioner was descended from a free woman, and so, by law, was entitled to freedom. For an example of a freedom suit based upon the free status of a mother, see John Davis v. Hezekiah Wood in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia.
Thousands of petition cases were tried in state courts across the country. In Saint Louis, nearly 300 petition cases were filed between 1807 and 1860. In Washington, D.C., nearly 500 petition cases were filed in the same period. Often jurors decided in favor of the enslaved. In fact, slaves gained freedom in 37 percent of the cases in Saint Louis. A large portion of cases, as much as one-third, either never went to trial or were settled out of court.
To file petitions for freedom, enslaved plaintiffs demonstrated an impressive knowledge of their rights and an equally impressive sense of calculated risk. For the most part, persistence paid off and petitioners who filed multiple suits were more likely to eventually succeed. Petitioners retained preeminent attorneys, such as Francis Scott Key, Richard Ridgely, John Law, William Wirt, Gabriel Duvall, and John Johnson. During the early nineteenth century in St. Louis and in Washington, D.C., nearly half of the attorneys at the bar may have acted as counsel for slave petitions. After the 1830s, the number of petition cases gradually declined and the number of attorneys grew. But from 1800 to 1830, most of the bar in these cities tried a petition case.
Recognizing the growing number of manumissions and petition cases, most southern states began to make petitioning more difficult. For example, in 1796, Maryland required that county courts serve as the court of original jurisdiction for petition for freedom cases, rather than the General Court of the Western Shore, an appellate court. The county courts clearly would be more favorable to the interests and views of local planters against whom these suits were often filed. In Virginia in 1798, the legislature banned those with antislavery sympathies from serving on juries in freedom suits. Maryland did so in 1796.
1662 Virginia Act of Assembly
- In 1662 Virginia enacted a law of hereditary slavery that stated a child born to an enslaved mother inherited her status as a slave. After this became law in Virginia all other Southern states assumed the same maternal inheritance of slavery. Dozens of petitions for freedom were filled on the basis that the petitioners mother was white, so the enslaved person was, by law, entitled to their freedom.
Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother; and that if any Christian shall commit fornication with a Negro man or woman, he or she so offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act.
- This 1662 law incorporated the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem, referred to as partus, which held that a child inherited the status of its mother, "bond or free". All children of enslaved women were thus born into slavery, regardless of the race or status of their fathers. This law hardened the racial caste of slavery, as most of the "bondswomen" were ethnic Africans and therefore considered foreigners. The principle was adopted by other English colonies, and later incorporated into slavery law in the United States.At the same time, this law meant that mixed-race children born to white women were free.
- Paul Heinegg, in his Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware (1995–2005) has traced the majority of families of free people of color in the early federal period, to families formed in colonial Virginia from unions between white women and African or African-American men among the working class, where free, indentured servants and slaves lived and worked near each other. While illegitimate mixed-race children of white mothers were bound to lengthy terms as apprentices, they still had gained the important status of free birth and the women's descendants were free.
1785 Virginia Act of Assembly
- Under the Virginia Act of Assembly of 1785, enslaved persons who were born in another state and brought into Virginia would be freed after one year in the state. Petitions for Freedom, on the basis of this law, were brought to the county courts in Virginia and the District of Columbia by slaves against owners who had held them in the state longer than the term permitted.
1795 Virginia Act of Assembly
- Within Chapter 11 of the Virginia Act of Assembly a number of acts were made law in order to consolidate and strengthen the regulations associated with a slaves right to petition for their freedom in the state. Any person who believed himself or herself to be illegally detained was given the right to make a complaint in court, order the clerk to issue a warrant summoning the owner, and be provided with an appointed legal counsel who, without fee, would prosecute the suit. In addition to further outlining the right of enslaved persons in the courts, the new laws also enacted stricter penalties against persons who were found illegally aiding slaves in their goal towards freedom. Any person in the state of Virginia found abetting, making, forging, or counterfeiting materials for use in court by a slave attempting to win their freedom was sentenced to suffer one year's imprisonment without bail. While the laws did create a space for the illegally enslaved to file suits for freedom it also isolated the enslaved from people with the power and means to assist their cases.
1796 Maryland Act of Assembly
- Through the 1796 Maryland Act of Assembly enslaved persons were given more opportunities to gain freedom yet, in the same document, the rights of free blacks were being stripped away. Under the law any slave brought into the state whose owner intended to sell their persons would be granted freedom. However, a proviso was attached to the law stating that any person who intended to settle in Maryland was lawfully able to import his slaves from out of state as long as his slaves remained in the state for three years, if they were removed from the state before three years the slaves would be granted freedom. Along with creating legal opportunities for slaves to gain freedom, the 1796 Maryland Act of Assembly also secured petitions the right “to have the benefit of a trial by jury”. With this right, enslaved persons were given the power to petition their owners in court based on the their illegal transport in or out of the state.
District of Columbia courts
Located to connect the northern and southern portions of the United States, Washington, D.C., provided a unique venue for freedom suits due to its blending of both Maryland and Virginia law. Because the District comprised portions of Maryland and Virginia, the laws of both states were in effect within those regions of Washington. The District was divided into two counties, the portion lying east of the Potomac River was known as the County of Washington; the other part called the County of Alexandria.
Since its formation in 1790, slavery was legal and existed prominently in the capital. The District of Columbia was the center of the domestic slave trade during the eighteenth century due to its ports in the Potomac River. However, the number of slaves declined over the next five decades from approximately 6,400 slaves in 1820 to 3,100 by 1860. As the number of slaves decreased, the population of free blacks grew, and by 1860, free blacks out-numbered slaves by four to one.
In a 1796 revision of Maryland’s general code, a non-importation law was ratified to stop visitors from coming into the state and selling their slaves for speculative purposes. This law hindered slaveholders moving into Washington and Georgetown from areas outside of Maryland by requiring them to remain residents for three years before selling their slaves. A number of slaves in Washington, D.C., petitioned for and won their freedom based owner violations of this Maryland enactment. These petitions were heard by the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, consisting of one chief justice and two associate justices. Many judges that would go on to the Supreme Court started in this lower court. Despite being a federal branch of the court system, the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia acted as both a lower and appellate court for nearby jurisdictions.
The papers of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia are held by the National Archives, however the digital project O Say Can You See: Early Washington D.C., Law & Family has collected and digitized several hundred freedom suits and thousands of case files dating between 1800 and 1862 for public use. Users of the archived materials are able to explore the cases, people, families, and selected stories discovered by researchers.
Saint Louis, Missouri courts
A large corpus of freedom suits are available to researchers today in St. Louis, Missouri, where 301 files dating from 1814–1860 are among St. Louis Circuit Court Records discovered in the 1990s. These records show that within the state jurors often decided in favor of the enslaved. In fact, slaves gained freedom in 57 percent of the cases in Saint Louis. As the "Gateway to the West" and a slave state, the St. Louis courts heard many freedom suits. St. Louis developed its own network of people who supported slaves seeking freedom. Prominent attorneys were among those appointed as counsel by the court to argue for slaves' seeking freedom. In 1824, the Missouri courts established the precedent known as "once free, always free", freeing slaves in Missouri based on their having been held by their masters illegally in free states or territories. This held for decades until 1852 and the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, which ruled that Scott should have filed for freedom while in a free state.
The first freedom suit in St. Louis was filed in 1805 by Marguerite Scypion, an African-Natchez woman. Briefly, she filed based on maternal descent from her Natchez grandmother. As the Spanish had ended Indian slavery in 1769, Scypion held that her mother, Marie-Jean Scypion, should have been freed at the time based on her Natchez ancestry, and that Marguerite herself was illegally held as a slave from birth. Having had an earlier ruling in her favor overturned on appeal, in 1826 Marguerite Scypion renewed her suit for freedom, filing against her current master Jean Pierre Chouteau, who headed one of the most prominent fur trading families in the city. She gained freedom for herself and all her mother's descendants in 1836, in a decision upheld by the US Supreme Court.
- Edward Bates was a private practice attorney who later went on to serve as the United States Attorney General under President Abraham Lincoln. While a slaveholder, Bates did try some petition for freedom cases in St. Louis, including the case of the freed slave Polly Berry's daughter. After gaining own her freedom in 1843 Berry enlisted Edward Bates as her attorney in her daughter's case. Bates argued that, according to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, since her mother was proved a free woman at the time of her daughters birth, that the child was free. The court ruled in their favor and both mother and daughter were freed from slavery.
- Hamilton Gamble was an American jurist and politician who served as the Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. He began his career as a prosecuting attorney for the Circuit Court of Howard County, Missouri until being appointed the Missouri Secretary of State and moved to the capital. After a few years in St. Louis, Gamble opened a private legal practice that offered legal representation to slaves in court for both petitions for freedom and criminal proceedings. Though a slaveholder himself, he dissented in the Missouri Supreme Court decision of the Dred Scott v. Emerson case. Gamble asserted that because Dred Scott was held illegally as a slave while residing in a free state, he should be awarded his freedom.
Notable United States cases
- 1656, Elizabeth Key v. Humphrey Higginson. Elizabeth filed the first freedom suit by a woman of African descent and won as a free woman of color. The mixed-race child of an enslaved black mother and white planter Thomas Key, she sued for her freedom and that of her infant son, John Grinstead, on the basis that her father was a free English subject, she was a baptized Christian, and she had served ten years past the term of her indenture. In English common law, children of English subjects took the status of the father (partuus sequitur patrem). But, at this time Africans were not considered to be English subjects but foreigners. England had no provision for foreigners to become subjects. In the early years of the colony, the law was unsettled about the status of children born to an English subject and a foreigner. Taunya Lovell Banks suggests in her analysis that the issue of "subjecthood" was more important than ideas about citizenship or race.
- 1781, Brom and Bett v. Ashley. Elizabeth Freeman (known also as Mum Bett), a slave in Massachusetts, filed for her freedom in the County Court of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. This case set a state precedent based on the ruling that slavery was irreconcilable with the new state constitution of 1780, which was based on equality of persons, although it did not specifically address slavery. This county court case was cited in the appeal of the more well-known case of Quock Walker v. Jennison (1783), heard at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts.
- 1806, Houlder Hudgins v. Jackey Wright. Jackey Wright sued for freedom for her and her two children, based on descent from Indian women; Virginia had prohibited Indian slavery since 1705 (or 1691). George Wythe as Chancellor had ruled for the Wrights' freedom based on their appearance as white and Hudgins' failure to prove that they were slaves; secondly, he ruled on the basis of a "presumption of freedom," according to the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. Houlder Hudgins appealed. The justices of the Court of Appeal, all slaveholders, held that the appellant had not proved any evidence of African maternal ancestry among the appellees, that they appeared white, and that the community considered their grandmother and great-grandmother to be Indians. They held that Virginia's Bill of Rights applied only to "free citizens and aliens", and could not be used to overturn "rights of property" in slaves. They ruled that the Wrights were free based on their recognized Indian maternal ancestry, as Indian had been free since 1705.
- 1805–1836, Marguerite Scypion v. Pierre Chouteau, Sr.. Marguerite, daughter of Marie Jean Scypion, an enslaved woman of African-Natchez descent, sued her first master Joseph Tayon's son François Tayon (who inherited her when his father died) in 1805. Her suit was based on her maternal descent from a Natchez maternal grandmother. She held that her mother was illegally held after Spain abolished Indian slavery in its territories in 1769. Her children, including Marguerite, should have been considered free at birth and not born into slavery. This was the first freedom suit filed in St. Louis and took place shortly after the US acquired the Louisiana Territory from France. Although the jury ruled in Scypion's favor, a higher territorial court overturned the decision.
- After passage in 1824 of a Missouri state law related to the right of slaves to file freedoms suits, in 1825 Scypion and her two sisters filed new petitions for freedom against their masters, by then Pierre Chouteau and two Tayon daughters. For such suits, the law gave slaves the standing of a free poor person, "with limited rights and privileges." The cases were combined under Marguerite Scypion's name. After their attorney successfully gained two changes of venue away from St. Louis for the trial, a unanimous jury in Jefferson County, Missouri in 1836 decided in favor of the descendants of Marie Jean Scypion and officially ended Indian slavery in Missouri. The decision survived appeals to the State Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court in 1838.
- 1810, Queen v. Hepburn. In 1813 the Supreme Court heard the arguments for Mima and Louisa Queen, yet did not grant the pair their freedom. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court on the Mima Queen v. Hepburn case. He stated that because the deposition asserting Mary Queen’s status as an African slave was from an eyewitness unlike the testimony claiming her free status, which was merely hearsay evidence, that the Supreme Court must uphold the D.C Court’s decision. Marshall’s decision stood on the logic of property laws and, by deeming the hearsay evidence inadmissible, he avoided the question of freedom. Not all of the justices, however, agreed with the decision; Gabriel Duvall, who previously represented the Mima’s relative Ned Queen in Maryland, dissented. He believed that hearsay evidence should be admitted as evidence and considered critical testimony in petition for freedom cases. The Queen v. Hepburn case is cited throughout American law for its establishment of “the hearsay rule”.
- 1824, Winny v. Whitesides. This is the first freedom suit in Missouri taken to the newly established state supreme court. Winny had lived as a slave with her masters in the free state of Illinois for years; she filed for freedom after they moved to Missouri. The case marked the beginning of the "once free, always free" era in Missouri. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that if a slave had been taken into an area that prohibited slavery, that slave was free – even if later returned to a slave state, such as Missouri. Missouri established a precedent of enforcing the laws of neighboring free states and territories related to forfeiture of illegally held slaves.:138 "Courts in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi also upheld the freedom of slaves who had lived in a free state or territory." The precedent prevailed in Missouri until 1852, when the state Supreme Court ruled against it in Dred Scott v. Sanford, against a political background of increasing sectional tensions over slavery.
- 1830, Charlotte Dupuy v. Henry Clay. In 1829 Charlotte Dupuy sued Henry Clay, the retiring Secretary of State, for her freedom and that of her two children based on a promise by a previous master. The case received wide attention in the press. Dupuy gained a court ruling that she remain in the city until her case was heard. She earned wages from Clay's successor, Martin Van Buren, while living at Decatur House for 18 months. The case was notable for these circumstances. After the court ruled against Dupuy in 1830, Clay kept her and her daughter enslaved for another decade; and her son for four years after that. He eventually freed them all. The Decatur House, now a historic site, has had exhibits on urban slavery and Dupuy's case. The story of the Dupuy family is also featured at the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum of Lexington, Kentucky.
- 1834, Rachel v. Walker. Surviving appeals in St. Louis, Missouri to the State Supreme Court, the ruling held that "if an officer of the United States Army takes a slave to a territory where slavery is prohibited, he forfeits his property." Military officers had tried to argue that they could not control their assignments and should not have to forfeit their property if sent to a free jurisdiction. At one time, the US Army paid officers a stipend for servants. No substantive freedom suits based on prior travel or residency in free territories reached the Missouri Supreme Court from 1837–1852, making it appear that the issue was settled in favor of freedom for slaves thus affected.
- 1835 Marie Louise v. Marot. This suit was heard by the Louisiana state district court and appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Court held that a slave who is taken to a territory prohibitive of slavery cannot be again reduced to slavery on returning to a territory allowing slavery. Presiding Judge George Mathews, Jr. stated that "[b]eing free for one moment...it was not in the power of her former owner to reduce her again to slavery." This precedent was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1856 landmark Dred Scott v. Sandford case.
- 1836, Commonwealth v. Aves. When New Orleans resident Mary Slater visited her father Thoma Aves in Boston, Massachusetts, she brought her slave girl Med. In Boston, Slater fell ill and asked her father to care for Med. The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and others sought a writ of habeas corpus against Aves, contending that Med became free by Slater's having brought her voluntarily into the free state. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that Med was free, and made her a ward of the court. The Massachusetts decision was considered notable for ruling that a slave whom a master voluntarily brought into a free state became free from the first moment of arrival; no extended residency was required. The decision angered Southerners.
- 1841, United States v. The Amistad. A group of Mende slaves being illegally transported on a ship near Cuba (then a Spanish territory) mutinied against the crew and demanded to return to West Africa. The surviving crew members tricked the slaves by steering the ship to Long Island, where it was intercepted by the US Coast Guard. The United States Supreme Court heard the case in Connecticut, where the ship was taken and the Mende held. It was international in scope, as the Spanish government supported the ship owners in their attempt to retain the people as slaves. The Court ruled that the Mende were taken illegally from Africa in violation of a treaty the Spanish had signed, and that they had legally defended their freedom in the mutiny. The Court ordered that the slaves be immediately freed. A collection was made to raise funds to return them to West Africa.
- 1844, Polly Wash v. David D. Mitchell. Polly Berry (filing as Polly Wash) was the mother of Lucy Ann Berry, and sued for her daughter's freedom in 1842. By 1844 in the case Polly Wash v. Joseph A. Magehan, Wash had secured her own freedom, based on having been held illegally as a slave in the free state of Illinois.:138 When her daughter's case was heard later that year, the jury voted in favor of Wash (and Berry), freeing the girl. Nearly 50 years later, the then-married Lucy Delaney published her memoir, the only first-person account of a freedom suit.:127
- 1852, Scott v. Emerson. The legal scholar Edlie Wong has noted that the case was shaped by Harriet and Dred Scott's desire to achieve freedom and to protect their two young daughters Eliza and Lizzie, who were of salable age and at great risk in slave markets by the time it was settled.:130–5 By the 1850s, southern juries became less willing to follow precedent and grant freedom to slaves based on their having resided for a time in free states.:127 In 1852 the Missouri state supreme court ruled that Scott's residence in a free state did not entitle him to freedom after he returned to Missouri. Its ruling that he should have sued for freedom while in a free state, was a de facto end in Missouri to the precedent of "once free, always free."
- 1853, Solomon Northup v. Edwin Epps. Solomon Northup, a free citizen of New York, had been abducted in Washington, DC and sold as a slave in Louisiana in 1841. In 1852 he convinced a white man to write a letter informing his friends in New York of his whereabouts. In January 1853 an agent of the state of New York brought evidence of Northup's freedom to Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana and retained a local lawyer to represent Northup. A local judge quickly ruled that Northup was free. Northup then returned to New York.
- 1857, Dred Scott v. Sandford. The US Supreme Court ruling was more severe, finding that African-descended persons and slaves had no legal status in federal courts as citizens, and that Congress had no constitutional right to prohibit slavery in any state or territory. While the case has been often discussed in terms of Dred Scott's individual rights, the couple were seeking freedom for both of them and especially to protect their two daughters. The scholar Edlie Wong has assessed the case as a "history of litigation profoundly shaped by gender and kinship.":130
Freedom suits in Great Britain
- 1772, Somerset v Stewart. a freedom suit ruled on by Lord Mansfield in England, who found that slavery had no basis in common law, and no "positive law" had been passed to establish it. His ruling was narrow, saying only that the master could not remove Somerset against his will from England, to send him to Jamaica for sale. But, it was widely considered to end slavery in England.
- 1778, Knight v. Wedderburn. a freedom suit by Joseph Knight (slave), in which, as in Somersett, the court found that slavery had no basis in Scottish common law and effectively ended the institution.
- Anne Silverwood Twitty, “Slavery and Freedom on in the American Confluence, from the Northwest Ordinance to Dred Scott,” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 2010
- Vivienne Kruger, “Born to Run: The Slave Family in Early New York, 1626-1827” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2007)
- Howell Cobb, A Scriptural Examination of the Institution of Slavery in the United States: With its Objects and Purposes (Georgia, 1856).
- "Historical Document- Felix’s Petition". Africans in America. Public Broadcasting Service. January 1, 1773.
- Heather Andrea Williams, American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2014
- Gillmer, Jason, Suing for Freedom: Interracial Sex, Slave Law, and Racial Identity in the Post-Revolutionary and Antebellum South (January 1, 2004). North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 82, No. 2, January 2004. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1799647
- http://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/education/aahi/beforedredscott/biblio.asp "Before Dred Scott: Freedom Suits in Antebellum Missouri", Missouri Digital History, Missouri State Archives, accessed 1 February 2011
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