Open main menu

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

43 U.S. 397

Rhodes  v.  Bell

THIS case was brought up by writ of error, from the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Columbia, in and for the county of Washington.

It was a petition for freedom filed by Bell. The facts are set forth in the special verdict, which is as follows:

'We of the jury find that previous to the year 1837, the petitioner was the slave of a certain Lawrence Hoff, a resident of Alexandria county, in the District of Columbia; that in the year 1837 the said Hoff, then owning and possessing the petitioner as his slave, in the county of Alexandria aforesaid, whereof he continued to be a resident, did sell and deliver the petitioner to one Little, then being a resident of Washington county, in the district aforesaid, and that the delivery of the petitioner was made to the said Little in Alexandria county aforesaid, and the petitioner was immediately removed by said Little to Washington county aforesaid, to reside, and also for sale, whereof said Little was resident; that the said Little shortly afterwards, to wit: about one year or a little more, sold the petitioner to one Keeting in Washington county, who sold and delivered him to the defendant; that since said sale to said Little, the petitioner has always been kept and held in slavery in the county of Washington aforesaid; that at the time of the sale and delivery of the petitioner as aforesaid by Hoff to Little, the petitioner was more than forty-five years of age, to wit: he was fifty-four of fifty-five years old, and is now fifty-nine or sixty years old. And if upon the facts aforesaid the law is for the petitioner, then we find for the petitioner on the issue joined; if upon the facts aforesaid the law is for the defendant, then we find for the defendant on the issue joined.' Whereupon all and singular the premises being by the court here seen, heard, and fully understood, and mature deliberation being thereupon had, the court is of opinion, from the statement of facts aforesaid, that the law is for the petitioner.

The writ of error was sued out for the purpose of reviewing this opinion.

Brent and Brent, for the plaintiff in error.

Bradley and Hoban, for the defendant.

The counsel for the plaintiff in error made the following points:

1st. That the removal of said Moses Bell from the county of Alexandria to Washington county, both in the District of Columbia, and under the same jurisdiction, as stated in the 'special verdict,' did not entitle him to freedom under any law in force in said district.

2d. That the said removal was not an importation of said Moses Bell, according to the true intent and meaning of the laws in force in the county of Washington aforesaid.

3d. That such removal, even if it had been illegal previous to the year 1812, was legalized by act of Congress on the 24th of June, 1812; and,

4th. That said Moses Bell, being over forty-five years of age at the time of such removal, was incapable (by the laws in force in said county of Washington) of receiving his freedom by or through any act or acts of his master or owner.

Brent, Sen., referred to the law of Maryland, 2 Maxcy's Laws, ch. 67, p. 361, which prohibited the importation of a slave into the state, but argued that it did not apply to this case, because Alexandria and Washington were only parts of the same sovereignty. He referred also to the act of Congress, of June, 1812, Laws, 265, which permits the people of the district to remove their slaves from one county to another; and to 8 Pet., 44, 46, 48, 49, 50, where the question came up incidentally.

In 14 Pet., 142, 145, the court decided that the counties of the district do not stand to each other in the attitude of separate states.

Hoban, for appellee.

In matters of a local character, unless imperative necessity require a contrary course, this court will always adopt and follow the decisions of the local tribunals. Since the act of 1812, in every instance in which the question involved in this case has arisen, the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia has invariably decided that, in order to import a slave from one county into the other in this district, the party importing must reside in the county, and there own the slave, from which the importation is made. See Maxcy's Cases, Dunbar v. Bell, October, 1821; Foster v. Simmons, Nepo Williams, November, 1835.

The case in 14 Pet. was upon the statute of limitations; it is now cited to reverse our opinions as to importation of slaves between the two counties. That case asserts no principle with which we are not familiar; it affirms the judgment of the Circuit Court. It merely asserts that as to the limitation of suits, Alexandria and Washington counties, as to each other, are not beyond seas. As to all local law, the counties have always been entirely distinct-the act of February 27, 1801, Davis, 123, declares that the laws of Maryland, as then existing, shall be the laws of that part of the district taken from Maryland, and the laws of Virginia of that part taken from Virginia.

Even from Maryland to import into that part of the district formerly belonging to Maryland, an act of Congress was necessary; namely, of May, 1803. Davis, 135.

If it be true that by virtue of the unity of sovereignty, the right of free importation, from county to county, exists, then all the adjudication from the cession down is wrong, and the act of 1812 was unnecessary.

If the right of importation, as claimed on the other side, exists, it operates a repeal of the settled policy of Virginia and Maryland, prohibiting the domestic slave-trade between them.

Maryland and Virginia both prohibit the introduction of slaves into their territory, except by persons coming to reside. The part of the district formerly belonging to Maryland is still considered as part of it, as to the introduction of slaves from that state, and the part of the district formerly belonging to Virginia is still considered as a part of that state as to the introduction of slaves from that state, by the act of May, 1803. If by the act of 1812, a person residing in either county may import slaves into the other, by the act of 1803 he may immediately remove them into the state adjoining, and thus all the policy and the letter of the laws of Virginia and Maryland prohibiting importation are immediately repealed.

Before the act of 1812, a resident of one county could only introduce a slave into the other, bringing the slave with him when he came to reside, and then could only sell him in three years. See the act of 1796 of Maryland, Maxcy's Laws, p. 361, c. 67.

By the act of 1812, a resident of either county can introduce his slave into the other without coming to reside: provided he reside in the county from which the importation is intended-and sell him when he pleases.

As to the prohibition of freedom on account of age, it applies only to cases of voluntary emancipation-where freedom is claimed under the act of the master-and not in a case of forfeiture, (like this,) where the claim is adverse to that of the master.

Bradley, on the same side, commented on the act of 1812, and said that the permission therein granted was only to remove a slave from one county to another, under certain restrictions; but it did not authorize fresh purchases to be made, and importations for the purpose of sale. He referred, also, to the difference which still existed between the two counties with regard to the issue of a female slave, as showing that the old law still prevailed in each county.

Brent, in reply and conclusion, said that the construction of the law, as stated by Mr. Hoban, had not been acquiesced in by the bar or the people of the district. Many thought the decisions wrong in the cases referred to by him; and, at all events, the opinion of the court below was not the law here. When a slave is brought from Alexandria to Washington, he is not removed from one sovereignty to another; and so the court decided in the case of the Bank of Potomac.

Before the act of 1803, negroes could be carried from Alexandria to Washington for the purpose of being hired out. The act of Maryland of 1796 allowed it.

Mr. Justice McLEAN 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).