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Volokh Conspiracy

Good way to start a court's history: 'Iowa Supreme Court's first case freed a slave'


There's a nice story in the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier by Dennis Magee, titled "Iowa Supreme Court's first case freed a slave," about In the Matter of Ralph, (a colored man), on habeas corpus (Iowa Terr. 1839), apparently handed down July 4, 1839. Here's an excerpt from the case, in which a master let his slave go to the Iowa Territory, on condition that he would pay $500 (plus interest) for his freedom:

From the facts agreed upon in this case, it seems that the claimant permitted his slave to come to this territory. The permission seems to have been absolute; but there was also an understanding that the latter was to pay the former a certain amount, as the price of his freedom. How the failure to comply with this understanding could render a removal, undertaken with the master's consent, an escape, we are unable to comprehend. The petitioner is under the same obligation to fulfil this engagement as though, instead of its being the price of his freedom, the debt had been incurred for the purchase of any other species of property. It is a debt which he ought to pay, but for the non-payment of which no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery.

We did not say there can be no escape where the slave goes to a free state by the consent of the master: If sent upon an errand, or traveling in company with his master he should refuse to return, he might probably be regarded as a fugitive. But this certainly cannot be the case where the journey was undertaken with the understanding of all parties that the slave was going to become a permanent resident of the free state or territory….

The language of the act of 1820, in relation to the district of country in which this territory is embraced is, that slavery therein "shall be, and is hereby forever prohibited." This seems to us an entire and final prohibition, not looking to future legislative action to render it effectual.

But it is said that, although the act may prohibit slavery, it does not declare a forfeiture of slave property, and that the most which the law will authorize will be to require the master to remove that property out of the territory. It is true that the act thus mentioned does not in express terms, declare a forfeiture of slave property, but it does, in effect, declare that such property shall not exist.

The master who, subsequently to that act permits his slave to become a resident here, cannot afterward exercise any acts of ownership over him within this territory. The law does not take away his property in express terms, but declares it no longer to be property at all. Of course those legal remedies, which can only be resorted to upon the presumption of a still subsisting ownership in the master, become altogether annihilated.

Obviously not a ringing proclamation of categorical freedom—as the court notes, the Constitution provided for the return of fugitive slaves, and it protected slavery more broadly. But it was still a good decision, and a nice way for a court to start its history.

Thanks to Howard Bashman (How Appealing) for the pointer.