Scott v. Negro Ben

The citation for this case is 10 US [6 Cranch] 3. Decided in the February term of 1810, the case revolved around a suit for freedom by a slave named Ben against Sabrett Scott, his owner.

In 1783, Maryland passed a law that stated, “That it shall not be lawful, after the passing [of] this act, to import or bring into this state, by land or water, any negro, mulatto or other slave, for sale, or to reside within this state; and any person brought into this state as a slave contrary to this act, if a slave before, shall thereupon immediately cease to be a slave, and shall be free; provided that this act shall not prohibit any person, being a citizen of some one of the United States, coming into this state with a bona fide intention of settling therein, and who shall actually reside within this state for one year at least, to be computed from and next succeeding his coming into the state, to import or bring in any slave or slaves which before belonged to such person, and which slave or slaves had been an inhabitant of some one of the United States, for the space of three whole years next preceding such importation; and the residence of such slave in some one of the United States, for three years as aforesaid antecedent to his coming into this state, shall be fully proved, to the satisfaction of the naval officer, or collector of the tax, by the oath of the owner, or some one or more credible witness or witnesses.” [10 US 3, 3-4] Ben sued for his freedom and contended the requirements of this law had not been met and he should be free.

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion of the court. In it, he said, “The great object of the proviso certainly was to permit persons, actually migrating into the State of Maryland, to bring with them property of this description which had been within the United States a sufficient time to exclude the danger of its being imported into America for the particular purpose. The great object of the provision was that the fact itself should accord with this intention. The manner in which that fact should be proved was a very subordinate consideration. Certainly the provisions of the law ought not to be so construed as to defect its object, unless the language be such as absolutely to require this construction.” [10 US 3, 6-7] He said further, “the majority of the Court is of opinion that the property of the master is not lost by omitting to make the proof which was directed before the naval officer or the collector of the tax, and that the fact on which his right really depends may be proved, notwithstanding this omission. The words of this part of the section do not appear to the Court to be connected, either in their sense or in their mode of expression, with the proviso. It is a distinct and a substantive regulation. In legislation, the conjunction ‘and’ is very often used when a provision is made in no degree dependent on that which precedes it, and in this case no terms are employed which indicate the intention of the legislature prescribing this particular duty to make the right to the property dependent on the performance of that duty. It is then the opinion of the majority of the Court that the fact of the residence of the plaintiff below within the United States was open for examination, even had his master omitted entirely to make the proof of that residence before the naval officer or collector of the tax, and consequently that the circuit court erred in refusing to admit testimony respecting that fact.” [10 US 3, 7-8]

Ben did not get his freedom. Interestingly, Francis Scott Key was one of the attorneys defending the slave owner.

While some slaves in American history were able to gain freedom, this case shows that with the laws written the way they were the cards were stacked against them.

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4 comments

  1. A very interesting case. Although the law could have been written better, Marshall’s reasoning makes sense. If the slaveowner met the law’s requirements, the fact that he hadn’t presented the necessary proof shouldn’t have deprived him of his property. As we were taught in law school, hard cases make bad law.

    1. I should have linked to the case itself. I’ll fix that now.

  2. Francis Scott Key defended the slave Ben, not the slave owner Sabrett Scott.

    1. Thanks for the comment. It seems to me, though, that Key defended the slave owner. Here’s why I say that. 10 US 5 says, “The cause was argued by C. Lee and Jones, for the plaintiff in error, and by Swann and F. S. Key, for the defendant.” So who is the defendant? 10 US 4 says, “The first was to the opinion of the court that it was incumbent on the defendant (Scott), in order to bring himself within the proviso contained in the first section of the act of 1783, to show to the jury that it has been fully proved to the satisfaction of the naval officer, or collector of the tax, by the oath of the owner, or some one or more credible witness or witnesses, that the petitioner was a resident of some one of the United States for three years antecedent to his coming into the State of Maryland, and that it was not sufficient for the defendant to prove, on the trial, to the satisfaction of the jury, that the defendant, being a citizen of someone of the United States, and coming into the State of Maryland with a bona fide intention of settling therein, and who actually resided within the said state for one year at least, computed from and next succeeding his coming into the state, imported the petitioner, who then belonged to the defendant, and that the petitioner had been an inhabitant of someone of the United States for the space of three whole years next preceding such importation.” This indicates to me that the defendant was identified as Scott, the slave owner. Finally, 10 US 8 says, “It is then the opinion of the majority of the Court that the fact of the residence of the plaintiff below within the United States was open for examination, even had his master omitted entirely to make the proof of that residence before the naval officer or collector of the tax, and consequently that the circuit court erred in refusing to admit testimony respecting that fact.” Therefore it seems clear to me that the plaintiff is the enslaved individual, Ben, as “his master” is clearly not the plaintiff. Therefore, Scott had to be the defendant.

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