Howell v Netherland, Page 3

Thomas Jefferson represented a slave named Samuel Howell in the man’s quest to gain freedom from his “master,” Wade Netherland.  In April of 1770, that case went to trial.

Jefferson and his client lost.

Jefferson argued that his client was free, since it was against the laws of nature that anyone could be born a slave.  The court disagreed.  The decision, in the case, reveals the kind of legal thinking which existed in America during 1770.  

Looking at a 1705 law allowing slavery, the Howell court examines the rights of someone whose parents were not "equal" under the eyes of the law.  In other words ... what if one of the parents is free and the other is enslaved?  Is the child free or enslaved?

This third page, from an 1829 report on Howell v Netherland, examines such a question.  Near the bottom of the text image, we read this:

Again, if it be a law of nature that the child shall follow the condition of the parent, it would introduce a very perplexing dilemma; as where the one parent is free and the other a slave.

We could pose a different series of questions:

     Is the law allowing slavery a moral law? 

     Supposing it is not, does that mean all decisions based on such a law are also not moral? 

     If so, how does a person charged with breaking an immoral law get out of his or her predicament?

Jefferson tried to convince the court that the law in effect was against the laws of nature (where “all men are born free”) and, therefore, any law declaring a person could be born a slave was not moral.  Many, many years would have to pass, however, before the majority of American courts agreed with that position.

Note, parenthetically, that the year before this 1770 trial, Tom Jefferson ran an advertisement in The Virginia Gazette.  On the 14th of September, 1769, he asked for help in the return of "a Mulatto slave called Sandy." In 1773, Jefferson sold "Sandy" for 100 pounds.

Media Credits

From "Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court of Virginia," published in Charlottesville during 1829.  Online, courtesy Library of Congress.




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