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Slavery in the Courts

Original Documents from the Archives of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York

On December 6, 1865, eight months after the official end of the American Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. Prior to that date, colonial and United States history is replete with uprisings, compromises, legislation and legal proceedings relating to slaves both in the North and South. The documents on display, a small sampling from the Library's collection of slavery cases, exemplify some of the issues that came before the courts.

Amistad Slavery Case: Connecticut & District of Columbia, 1839-1841

The African captives: Trial of the prisoners of the Amistad on the writ of habeas corpus, before the Circuit Court of the United States, for the District of Connecticut at Hartford: Judges Thompson and Judson. September term, 1839 New York: Published and for sale at 143 Nassau Street, 1839

Argument of John Quincy Adams, before the Supreme Court of the United States: in the case of the United States, appellants vs. Cinque and others..., delivered on the 24th of February and 1st of March, 1841. New York: S. W. Benedict, 1841

I am resolved it is better to die than to be a white man's slave...
Joseph Cinque, leader of the revolt of African slaves aboard the Spanish ship, Amistad, 1839

Led by Sengbe Pieh, better known as Joseph Cinque, a group of African slaves aboard the Spanish ship Amistad had killed the captain and crew of the vessel and were attempting to sail back to Africa. They were sighted off the eastern tip of Long Island by Lt. Commander Thomas Gedney on board the brig Washington who seized the Amistad and towed it to New London, Connecticut where he notified U. S. Marshals. The Africans were consigned to county jail in New Haven.

Abolitionists, led by New Yorkers Simeon S. Jocelyn, a white pastor of a black church, Joshua Leavitt, editor of the Emancipator, the official organ of the anti-slavery society, and wealthy merchant Lewis Tappan, formed an Amistad Committee to raise money for their defense, find an interpreter and provide for their physical well being. Initially, the case was brought before the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Connecticut, at Hartford which denied habeas corpus due to lack of jurisdiction. The case of the Amistad prisoners ultimately reached the Supreme Court where they were defended by Roger S. Baldwin and former U. S. President John Quincy Adams. The Supreme Court decision did not attack slavery, but found that Cinques and his followers had been illegally kidnapped from Africa and, therefore were not liable for crimes committed against their captors. After having been in custody for two years, the Africans were released and, with the help of the Amistad Committee, returned to the Colony of Sierra Leone accompanied by five missionaries.

Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker
Florida, 1844

Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker, at Pensacola Florida, for Aiding Slaves to Escape from Bondage. With an Appendix, Containing a Sketch of His Life. Boston: Published at the Anti-Slaver, 1845

Then lift that manly right-hand, bold Ploughman of the wave! Its branded palm shall prophesy, "Salvation To the Slave!" Branded

The Branded Hand by John Greenleaf Whittier

Jonathan Walker in the pillory

Jonathan Walker was a Florida resident who moved to Massachusetts to separate himself from the institution of slavery. He returned to Florida three years later and attempted to help seven slaves, formerly in his employ, to escape. He was captured and tried in the Superior Court of Escambia County, in the District of West Florida, Territory of Florida. On being convicted, he was pilloried, pelted with rotten eggs, imprisoned for eleven months, fined, and branded on the hand branded by a U. S. Marshal with the letters "S.S." which stood for "slave stealer." This episode was the inspiration for John Greenleaf Whittier's abolitionist poem, The Branded Hand.


The Trial of Amos Broad and his wife, New York, February 28, 1809

The Trial of Amos Broad and his wife, on three several indictments for assaulting and beating Betty a slave, and her little female child, Sarah, aged three years. Had at the Court of Special Sessions of the Peace, held in and for the city and county of New-York, at the City-hall, of the said city, on Tuesday, the 28th day of February, 1809. Printed by Henry C. Southwick, No.2 Wall-Street, 1809

It will be a magnificent testimonial of a nation's justice; to show that though unfortunately slavery has been entailed upon its institution and interwoven with them almost past the point of extirpation, yet that the bitter draft is tempered and qualified with the balm of mercy
Mr. Sampson for the prosecutionBroad-Trial


This case was brought by the New York Manumission Society which provided an attorney, Mr. Sampson, to be co-counsel for the district attorney. Amos Broad and his wife Demis were indicted for cruel and unusually harsh beating of two of their slaves. Some of the testimony included eyewitness accounts of Mr. Broad pouring water on Betty and making her stand out in the cold until it froze on her. Another witness testified that Mrs. Broad "kicked the infant (Sarah) in the breasts until she gasped -6- for breath." At summation, the defense attorney proposed that Amos and his wife should voluntarily free Betty, Sarah and a third slave, Hannah. Broad was found guilty on both counts of assault and was sentenced to a total of sixty days in prison and a $500 fine. His wife was also found guilty and fined $250, but because of her pregnancy was not jailed. The court did not address the legality of slavery since the institution was not completely outlawed in New York until 1827. However, the outcome of the case is notable because it led to unexpected freedom for the three slaves.

The Lemmon Slave Case: New York, 1853 and 1860

New York Court of Appeals Report of The Lemmon Slave Case: Containing points and Arguments of Counsel on Both Sides and Opinions of all the Judges. New York: Horace Greeley, 1860

Neither the law of nature or nations or the Federal Constitution impose any duty or obligation on the State to maintain the state of slavery within her territory in any form or under any circumstances.
Justice William B. Wright, Court of Appeals for the State of New York

The Lemmon case had national significance because it pitted the laws of a free state against those of a slave state. In 1852, the Lemmon family of Virginia traveled with their eight slaves to New York en route to catching a steamer to Texas. It was not their intention to remain in the state. Relying on the repeal in 1841 of New York's "nine month transit law" that had allowed the continued status of slaves merely traveling through the state, Louis Napoleon, a free Negro, sought and was granted freedom for the Lemmon's slaves by filing a writ of habeas corpus in New York's superior court. Seven years later, the State of Virginia challenged the action in New York State's Court of Appeals. The court decided 5-3 in favor of New York in a pro-freedom decision that sustained the slaves' release.

Counsel representing each side of the appeal in the Lemmon case were well-known and respected figures of the New York bar. William Maxwell Evarts (1818-1901), who was appointed by the Governor to represent the State of New York, became the first president of ABCNY (1870-79) and a major donor to the Library's collection. Evarts' victory in behalf of the state of New York in the Lemmon case made him a national figure. During his illustrious career Evarts defended Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial, served as Attorney General of the United States, and participated in the Hayes-Tilden contested proceedings on behalf of the Republican Party. Charles O'Conor (1804-1884), who represented the State of Virginia, was president of the New York Law Institute from 1869-77. He served briefly as a U. S. Attorney for the Southern District (1853-54), and later participated in the prosecution of the corrupt Tweed Ring that had gained control of New York City government. A strong states-rights Democrat, O'Conor had maintained in numerous public speeches that slavery was "not unjust" and, after the Civil War, volunteered to work in behalf of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis in his treason trial.

Selected Slavery Cases in the Library Archives

Thomas Aves
Case of the slave-child, Med: report of the arguments of counsel, and of the opinion of the court, in the case of Commonwealth vs. Aves: tried and determined in the Supreme judicial court of Massachusetts. Boston: I. Knapp, 1836

Anthony Burns
Boston Slave Riot, Trial of Anthony Burns… Boston: Fetridge and Company, 1854.

Reuben Crandall
The trial of Reuben Crandall, M. D.: charged with publishing and circulating seditious and incendiary papers, &c. in the District of Columbia, with the intent of exciting servile insurrection. Washington City: Printed for the proprietors, 1836.

Harper's Ferry Raid
Rise and progress of the bloody outbreak at Harper's Ferry. New York: Published by John F. Trow, printer, by direction of the New York Democratic Vigilant Association, 1859.

Dred Scott
Historical And Legal Examination Of That Part Of The Decision Of The Supreme Court Of The United States In The Dred Scott Case. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1858.

A Report of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Opinions of the Judges Thereof, in the case of Dred Scott versus John F. A. Sanford by Benjamin C. Howard. New York: D. Appleton, 1857.

A legal review of the case of Dred Scott, as decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. Boston: Crosby, Nichols and Company, 1857.

Richard Tuske, Chief Librarian
Mina Rieur Weiner, Consulting Curator
Clare Brown, Graphic Designer