Open main menu

Court Documents


27 U.S. 664

Le Grand  v.  Darnall

APPEAL from the circuit court of the United States, for the district of Maryland.

The facts of the case appear on the argument of the counsel for the appellee, and in the opinion of the Court.

Mr Taney, for the appellant, submitted the case without argument; stating, that it had been brought up merely on account of its great importance to the appellee; which rendered it desirable that the opinion of the supreme court should be had on the matters in controversy.

Mr Stewart, for the appellee.

The case presented by the bill, answers and depositions, is as follows.

Bennett Darnall, of Ann Arundel county, in the state of Maryland, by his will dated August 4th, 1810, devised to his son, Nicholas Darnall, the defendant in this case, certain lands lying in the county and state aforesaid.

The mother of the said Nicholas was the slave of the testator, and Nicholas was born a slave to his father.

Bennett Darnall, in his will, refers to two deeds of manumission executed by him, one in 1805 and the other in 1810, in both of which it seems Nicholas was included with other slaves designed to be emancipated by these deeds. By some omission, neither of these deeds are exhibited.

The testator made two codicils to his will, the last of which is dated January 20th, 1814, and was proved before the register of wills, January 31st, 1814. Bennett Darnall must therefore have died in January 1814. Nicholas Darnall, the defendant, sold the land referred to in the proceedings, to Le Grand the complainant, and it appears by the agreements exhibited with the bill, that at the time the contract was first made, neither party supposed there was any question about the title. But afterwards, it seems, doubts were suggested to Darnall, which he communicated to Le Grand, and the agreements above mentioned were thereupon made with full knowledge on both sides of the supposed defect in the title, and were framed with reference to it.

Le Grand gave his notes for the purchase money, according to the agreement and a suit was brought on one of them, and judgment recovered in the circuit court for the district of Maryland; whereupon he filed his bill in that court, praying an injunction on the ground that Darnall was unable to convey him a good title to the land.

The defect supposed to exist, and alleged in the bill, is this; that Darnall was not more than ten years of age at the time of his father's death, and at that tender age was unable to work and gain a sufficient maintenance and livelihood, and was incapable therefore of receiving manumission by the laws of Maryland.

The answer of Nicholas Darnall insists that he was, at the time of the testator's death, able to work and gain a sufficient livelihood and maintenance.

Four witnesses were examined.

John Mercer and Robert Welch prove that Nicholas was about eleven years of age at the time of his father's death, and describe him as a fine, healthy, intelligent boy, able by his work to maintain himself. Dr James Stewart and Samuel Moore state that boys of eleven years of age in Maryland are able to support themselves by their own labour, and specify the kind of work in which they may be usefully employed.

Upon this answer and evidence, the Court dissolved the injunction and dismissed the bill.

It is proper to say, that the whole of these proceedings have been amicable; that Le Grand is willing to pay if his title is a safe one, and that Darnall does not wish Le Grand to pay unless he can make a good title to him.

By the act of 1796, chap. 67, sec. 13, slaves may be manumitted in Maryland by last will; provided they be under forty-five years of age, and able to work and gain a sufficient maintenance and livelihood; at the time the freedom given shall commence.

In the case of Hall vs. Mullin, 5 Harris & Johns. 190, the court of appeals have decided that a devise of property real or personal, by a master to his slave, entitles the slave to his freedom, by necessary implication.

Under this decision, the will of Bennett Darnall gave freedom to Nicholas, provided he was in a condition to receive it at the testator's death. The omission therefore to produce the deeds of manumission is not material. If they are regarded as not proved, or as not effective for the purpose intended, still the defendant may rely on his title under the will.

In the case of Hamilton vs. Cragg, 6 Harris & Johns. 16, it was held that an infant slave (only three years of age at the time of the death of the testator who attempted to manumit him), unable to gain a sufficient maintenance and livelihood, could not be manumitted. It was this decision that created the doubt in regard to the title of Nicholas Darnall; for until that case was decided, it had been generally supposed that this provision in the statute was intended to guard against the manumission of slaves who, although under forty-five years of age, were suffering under incurable diseases or constitutional infirmities which would most probably always disable them from maintaining themselves by their own labour, and make them a charge upon the public. It had not been generally supposed to apply to the case of children for whose maintenance provision could perhaps always be made by binding them to serve as apprentices, and especially was considered inapplicable to those children for whose support abundant provision was made by the testator who gave the freedom.

But without attempting to disturb the authority of that case, the proof in this cause brings it expressly within the principle decided in Hamilton vs. Cragg; and entitles the party to his freedom. The defect of title alleged in the bill is consequently without foundation, and the decree of the court below fully justified.

Mr Justice DUVALL delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).