THE ALABAMA SUPREME COURT ON SLAVE HIRELING CONTRACTS


The Alabama Supreme Court may have rendered more decisions on slave hireling contracts than any other aspect of slave law. These rulings concerned medical care for hired slaves, as well as their exposure to risk and control of them through punishment. The court also addressed the implied stipulations of slave hireling contracts and the penalties for breaking them. In all, a lively judicial discourse existed on the subject.

In 1824 the court established the principle that the hirer owed the full amount due under the contract if a slave became disabled during the term, unless the agreement specified otherwise. The case concerned a slave who was healthy when hired, but three months later suffered an accidental injury which rendered him useless as a laborer. The court's decision compared the hirer's situation to that of a tenant paying rent on a house. In the latter instance, it had been uniformly held that the tenant owed the full amount if the house was destroyed by fire. So, too, with hired slaves who were became sick, disabled by injury, or ran away: the hirer bore the loss. The tenant and the hirer were considered purchasers for a limited time and during that time subject to the same risks as the owner. Outlaw and McClellan v. Cook, Minor 257 (1824).

Subsequently, the court expanded this principle to include hired slaves who died during the term of the contract. The case concerned Aaron Perry, who hired two slaves at one price to Augustin Hewlett. One of the slaves died. Hewlett allowed the other to visit Perry, who detained him. The Alabama Supreme Court again invoked the analogy of a tenant, but this time to question its relevance to this case. The hirer of a slave, like a tenant, had an obligation to return the property in good repair or pay damages, but this rule did not apply in the case of a slave who died during the term because a dead slave could not be resurrected. In this instance, however, Perry had lost his right to claim any payment because he detained the second slave and the pair had been hired under one contract. Perry v. Hewlett, 5 Porter 318 (1837).

If an owner took possession of a hired slave when there had been no violation of the contract, he lost his right to payment. The court articulated this principle in 1854, ruling in the case of Easley who hired a slave to McNeill. The slave subsequently ran away and returned to his master. The master refused to return the slave, saying he had been mistreated. Eventually, Easley sent the slave, by himself, back to McNeill, but instead of returning he ran away. The court ruled that, under these circumstances, the owner had not fulfilled his duty under the contract. Three years later, the court ruled that the hirer had an implied right to rehire the slave in the absence of a stipulation to the contrary. McNeill v. Easley, 24 Alabama 455 (1854) and Harris v. Maury, 30 Alabama 679 (1857).

The law also required the hirer to pay for medical treatment, unless the contract stipulated otherwise, but there were exceptions. In 1842, for example, Judge John J. Ormond ruled in the case of a slave who had become ill in the absence of the hirer. A physician was called and the doctor billed the owner. Ormond acknowledged the earlier principle, but confined it to cases when the hirer retained possession of the slave. In this instance, he had not, so the owner still had some responsibility. Neither the hirer nor the owner could be absolved fully because of "the moral and legal obligation" to supply the slave's wants, which resembled the responsibility "of a father to support his children." Meeker v. Childress, Minor 109 (1823) and Gibson v. Andrews, 4 Alabama 66 (1842).

One year later, Ormond expanded this idea to those who would corrupt the morals of a hired slave. The case concerned an owner who, subsequent to the contract, learned that the hirer operated "a poorly furnished grog shop" and knowingly received stolen goods from slaves. The owner repossessed the slave before the contract expired and sought compensation for the time hired. Judge Ormond noted that, under normal circumstances, an owner could not remove a hired slave from service. On the other hand, all slave hireling contracts had an implied stipulation that the slave would be employed in some legitimate pursuit. If not, the morals of the slave would be impaired and his value reduced. "In the downward career of vice," with one crime leading to another "of deeper dye," the slave might even forfeit his life. In this particular case, however, the owner had not demonstrated that the hirer employed the slave in illegal activities, so he had not been justified in removing him from service. Rasco and Brantley v. Willis, 5 Alabama 38 (1843).

In 1844 Ormond ruled that the owner could take possession of the slave if the hirer refused to provide medical care. The case concerned a hired slave who injured his leg. Eventually, the untreated wound became so infected that the slave's leg, and perhaps his life, were endangered. The owner removed the slave from service, had him treated, and offered to return him to the hirer, who refused. The lower court ruled that the owner had broken the contract, but Ormond disagreed. The hirer had an obligation to treat the slave humanely, just as he had an obligation to treat a hired horse humanely. If the hirer failed to perform his duty, the owner could remove the slave from his possession. Finally, by offering to return the slave following treatment, the owner had obligated the hirer for full payment under the contract. Hogan v. Carr, 6 Alabama 471 (1844).

Following Ormond's retirement, the Alabama Supreme Court became less attentive to the hired slave's medical needs. One case arose in January, 1848, when William Knox hired slave William from John R. Drish. Knox agreed to provide food and clothing for William, but the contract made no mention of medical expenses. During the spring and summer, William was "extremely ill with brain fever" and Drs. Sims and Jones treated him. Knox did not request the treatment, but he knew it was being provided. The Montgomery County Circuit Court charged the jury that, if they believed the evidence, Knox owed nothing to Sims and Jones.

Before the Alabama Supreme Court, Drs. Sims and Jones argued that the hirer was responsible for medical treatment, unless the contract stipulated otherwise. Knox replied that he had not authorized the treatment. In ruling, the court noted that the hirer had an implied responsibility for medical treatment, food, and clothing, unless the contract stipulated otherwise. In this case, however, the contract mentioned food and clothing, but not medical expenses. This could be construed only as an effort to limit the hirer's liability, so Knox bore no responsibility. Who, then, did? The law required that someone stand in the relationship of master to the slave, so in this instance it had to be the owner. Sims and Jones v. Knox, 18 Alabama 236 (1850).

In 1855 the court further limited the hirer's obligation to provide medical care. The case concerned John M. Burke, who hired slave Allen to the Alabama and Tennessee Railroad for one year. The railroad employed Allen as an ox cart driver, hauling logs to its mill near Selma. Later, the operation moved further up the line into Perry County, where Allen was rehired to the Bibb County Steam-mill Company. In November, 1852, Allen became ill. Eventually, the mill company consulted a physician, who advised sending Allen back to Selma without actually examining the patient. On a rainy, cold night, Allen went back down the line to Selma, where he was treated by a physician at the request of a third party, diagnosed with dropsy of the chest, and died within forty hours.

Burke sued the railroad for the slave's value. The Dallas County Circuit Court refused the railroad's request to charge the jury that no liability existed if the hirer had exercised the degree of care that masters generally used in relationship to their own slaves. The judge also refused to admit the testimony of the physician who had advised sending Allen back to Selma, as well as that of one of the steam mill hands. The court did charge the jury that if Allen was "manifestly sick," it had been the railroad's duty to call in a physician. The jury was further charged that the railroad was responsible if it had been negligent with respect to the disease that killed Allen.

Before the Alabama Supreme Court, the railroad company argued that the Circuit Court should have admitted the testimony of the physician and the steam mill hand. Furthermore, the railroad objected that the Circuit Court had refused the jury charge it had recommended. Burke countered that the court should have excluded the testimony of the mill hand and the physician because both were agents of the railroad. Furthermore, the rule regarding negligence was that the hirer should use "such diligence and attention as men of ordinary care and prudence take of their own property." The court agreed with the company that hirers had no more responsibility for medical care than masters generally exercised in relation to their own slaves. If Burke had wanted a greater degree of care, he should have stipulated so in the contract. Furthermore, the hirer was not automatically guilty of neglect because the slave was ill, the cause undetermined, and a physician had not been called. Alabama and Tennessee Railroad v. Burke, 27 Alabama 535 (1855).

The court also heard numerous arguments regarding the risk of accidental injury among hired slaves. One early decision involved Henry W. Taylor, who hired a slave to Nathaniel F. Williams and Henry Hitchcock to work on a steamboat. While thus employed, the slave fell into the pit of the flywheel and was killed. At the trial in Mobile County Circuit Court, several steamboat captains testified that, normally, slats were nailed across uprights on each side of the flywheel. They further testified that it was "very unusual" to operate without this protection. The court charged the jury that Williams and Hitchcock were liable if they had been negligent, but the defendants argued that the charge should have taken into account the carelessness of the slave.

The Alabama Supreme Court made a distinction between passengers who purchased a ticket and those who contracted to work on the boat. The latter assumed a greater responsibility for their own safety, so much so that gross negligence was required before the boat owner incurred any liability, a principle which applied to hired slaves as well as free laborers. Consequently, the Circuit Court's charge to the jury had been defective because it failed to specify gross negligence. Williams and Hitchcock v. Taylor, 4 Porter 234 (1836).

Between 1850 and 1853, Judge and later Chief Justice William P. Chilton wrote three decisions regarding physical risks to hired slaves, all of which indicated attention to the interests of the owner and hence the slave. The first concerned John Drew, who hired Jeffro and Daniel to William Nesbitt for one price. Jeffro subsequently became sick, returned to his master, and never went back to work for Nesbitt. Later, Drew removed Daniel from service without Nesbitt's consent. He justified his action because Nesbitt had employed Daniel to raft logs, but the slave could not swim. The Cherokee County Circuit Court awarded Drew payment for the time the slaves actually worked.

Before the Alabama Supreme Court, Nesbitt argued that Drew had broken the contract by removing Daniel from service. Drew replied that he had a moral and legal obligation to protect Daniel, who he knew could not swim. Chilton ruled that Drew had broken the contract by removing Daniel from service. Under the circumstances, the owner was not entitled to compensation because the two slaves had been hired under the same contract. Chilton acknowledged, however, that the master did have a moral and legal obligation to protect slave and could remove them from hired service under some circumstances. That principle did not apply in this particular case, however, for Daniel had been hired to work in a sawmill and those employed in this capacity customarily rafted logs. Nesbitt v. Drew, 17 Alabama 379 (1850).

At the next term, Chilton wrote the court's decision in the case of two brothers who operated a steamboat between Mobile and New Orleans. On one run, a hired slave drowned in the Mobile River, near the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee, while the boat had detoured upriver to take on cargo bound for New Orleans. In Mobile County Circuit Court, the owner contended that the hirers had broken the contract because newspaper advertisements claimed that the boat ran between Mobile and New Orleans and said nothing of detours. The Circuit Court instructed the jury to consider the advertisements, but refused to admit them as conclusive evidence of a contract. Judge Chilton agreed. The advertisements were not tantamount to a contract, but they certainly were relevant evidence in the case. Myers v. Gilbert, 18 Alabama 467 (1850).

In 1853 Chief Justice Chilton ruled in the case of Jesse Seay, who hired King from E.W. Marks under a contract that failed to specify how the slave would be employed. At the time, however, Seay owned a livery stable, where Marks understood that King would work. Seay subsequently rehired King to an individual who employed him to raft logs down the Alabama River, in which capacity the slave drowned while attempting to cross the river in a fashion other than that directed by the sub-contractor. The Dallas County Circuit Court charged the jury that Seay was liable if working in the livery stable had been a condition of employment. If not, the hirer was bound to exercise the care that a prudent master would take toward his slaves.

Before the Alabama Supreme Court, Seay argued that he was not liable for King's death, which had resulted from the slave's own "reckless or perverse will." Marks contended the Seay had broken the contract by rehiring the slave. Chilton ruled that Marks should have been more specific in the contract if he did not want King rehired for a purpose other than that which he presumed. Under the circumstances, Seay was justified in rehiring King for any task which a prudent master would have a slave perform. On the other hand, the owner could recover if the slave had been employed in an unusually hazardous capacity. Seay v. Marks, 23 Alabama 532 (1853).

In 1860 the court specified at least one circumstance under which a hired slave could not be employed. The case concerned Rachel M. Jones, who hired slave Orange to her son-in-law, Squire Lowry, to work on his plantation. One of Lowry's sons, John, loaned Orange to Elias and Gabriel Fort to assist in raising a gin house. During the course of the work, Orange was struck by a falling timber and killed. The Dallas County Circuit Court charged the jury that the Forts were not liable if John Lowry had the authority, express or implied, to loan Orange to them, but the Alabama Supreme Court disagreed. A slave hired as a plantation hand might well assist in raising a gin house, should the need arise, but he could not be hired or loaned to another for that purpose because of the danger involved. Jones V. Fort, 36 Alabama 449 (1860).

One of the court's longer-running cases involving slave hireling contracts concerned medical treatment as well as the imposition of risk. On February 1, 1844, Beverly N. Wilkinson hired Squire and Adeline from Robert A. Moseley through the following January 1. In Montgomery County Circuit Court, Mosley charged that it thus became Wilkinson's duty to provide proper medical care for Adeline, which he did not do. She died as a consequence. He further charged that Wilkinson had violated the contract because Adeline had been hired to work as a cook in the city of Montgomery, but was rehired as a field hand on a plantation outside the city. Wilkinson responded that Moseley had accepted payment for Adeline's services, with full knowledge of the rehire, which ratified it.

Moseley had hired Adeline to work as a cook in Montgomery because he considered city life healthier than plantation labor. In March or April, 1844, Wilkinson nevertheless rehired her to Hughes, who employed Adeline as a field hand on his Alabama River plantation about three miles from Montgomery. On a Sunday morning in late July or early August, Adeline reported to the overseer with a chill and fever, which had developed the day before. The overseer administered calomel on Sunday night and castor oil on Monday morning. At "dinner-time" on Monday she asked for food and appeared better, but that night became much worse and complained of a pain in her side. The overseer drew a half-pint of blood and put a mustard plaster on her side, stomach, and wrists. That relieved the pain and she slept. At dawn on Tuesday, Adeline was much worse. She died later that day.

The Montgomery County Circuit Court charged the jury that if they believed Adeline had needed a physician, then Moseley could recover damages. On appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court took a somewhat different stance. Wilkinson could have broken the contract if Moseley had misrepresented Adeline as a cook, but this did not authorize him to rehire her in another capacity. Furthermore, the charge to the jury should have contained each of the following propositions: the slave needed a physician, Wilkinson had a duty to supply one, he failed to do so, and Adeline died as a result. Wilkinson v. Moseley, 18 Alabama 288 (1850), Moseley v. Wilkinson, 24 Alabama 411 (1854), and Wilkinson v. Mosley, 30 Alabama 562 (1857).

Slave owners delegated the power of punishment to hirers, but not the right to inflict "cruel or barbarous" penalties. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld this principle in 1855, ruling in the case of John F. Bondurant who hired slave Sam to Samual Nelson. One rainy Saturday night, Sam asked Nelson's overseer for a pass to visit his wife, but was directed to wait until morning because the creek was up and dangerous to cross in the dark. Sam disobeyed and went that night.

On Monday morning, when Sam saw the overseer walk into the field, he picked up a club and returned to Bondurant, who "inflicted thirty blows with a handful of switches" and sent him back to Nelson. When Nelson saw Sam, he grabbed him by the collar with the intent of punishing him, but the slave produced a knife and cut his captor in several places. Nelson directed his wife to fetch a rope, but Sam also cut her and attempted to stab a slave woman who came to the aid of her mistress. Nelson finally threw Sam to the ground, at which time the slave's head stuck a stump or root, bound him, and, along with several others, administered thirty to forty lashes with a whip. Sam remained "insolent and rebellious" after being turned loose. He walked around the yard, complained of being sick, and did no work. Six days later he died.

Following Sam's death, several physicians examined the body. Those who did so on behalf of Bondurant said that the whipping along could have killed Sam. Those who did so on behalf of Nelson said that the wound produced when he fell could have done the same. The Perry County Circuit Court charged the jury that Nelson was not liable if they believed Boundurant's whipping had killed Sam; he was not liable if the blow to Sam's head when he fell had killed him; Nelson was liable if the whipping he administered caused the slave's death; and he was liable if his whipping, along with other injuries, had killed Sam. The charged made the further distinction that the whipping continued after Sam had been bound and posed no threat to Nelson.

Before the Alabama Supreme Court, Nelson argued that either the master or the hirer had a right to control the slave through moderate punishment. If the slave did not yield, such punishment could continue until he did. If death ensued, neither the master nor the hirer was liable. If slaves were not compelled to obey, the master's power over them would evaporate. Bondurant agreed that Nelson has a right to punish the slave, but he had no right to kill him, unless in self-defense. If Sam died from a "barbarous whipping," then Nelson was liable, even if death had been unintentional. The Alabama Supreme Court objected to both arguments because neither Nelson nor Bondurant adequately addressed the central issue, whether or not the whipping had been "barbarous or cruel." Three years later, however, the court explicitly stated that a hirer who administered "cruel and unreasonable" punishment was guilty of trespass and liable to the owner. Nelson v. Bondurant, 26 Alabama 341 (1855) and Hall v. Goodson, 32 Alabama 277 (1858).

The Alabama Supreme Court never defined reasonable punishment, but in 1861 Judge George W. Stone noted that there existed a boundary beyond which force became unreasonable. The law did not define this boundary with precision, but it depended upon the nature of the offense, its frequency, and the slave's attitude while being punished. Master's punished slaves to reduce them "to a proper state of submission, respect, and obedience to legitimate authority." Chastisement should secure that end with as little permanent injury as possible. Tillman v. Chadwick, 37 Alabama 337 (1861).

The court's rulings on slave hireling contracts did not represent the norm on this subject, but rather what the court thought the norm should be. From this perspective, the law clearly placed great value upon slave property, primarily to protect the owner, but this also worked to the benefit of hired slaves. Logic would dictate that, as a rule, hirer's were more careless with slave property than owners. The court's decisions do not contradict that conclusion, but neither do they confirm it. The decisions also suggest a significant market for hired slaves, perhaps more often for commercial and industrial work as opposed to agricultural.



 

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