A bill of sale for slaves and a bond executed contemporaneously for their eventual emancipation constitute one agreement.
A bond to emancipate slaves was valid, provided it did not call for their emancipation within the state of Alabama.
Trotter v. Blocker (6 Porter 269) was overruled insofar as it declared that the 1819 Constitutionís delegation of the power to emancipate slaves to the legislature constituted a prohibition of the masterís common law right to free them.
Facts of the Case
On January 14, 1826, Martha Prater and Richard Darby of Lauderdale County executed two legal agreements. Under one, Prater sold a slave woman named Rachel, age twenty-five, and her three children, Eliza, eight, William, five, and Thomas, two, to Darby for $525. In the second agreement, Darby bound himself to pay Prater $1050 if he did not free Rachel and her children after having received "a reasonable compensation" for his investment in them.
The same day that Prater executed these agreements, she left for Illinois and remained there until her death in 1834. It had long been her purpose to free the numerous slaves she owned and, apparently, she went to north for that purpose. She had not taken Rachel and her children because Rachel was married to an Alabama slave who Prater did not own. The transactions with Darby were a sham, designed to allow Rachel to remain in Alabama, close to her husband, but eventually attain her freedom.
Darby died in December 1834, leaving Rachel and her children to his wife, Drucilla. Praterís administrator sued Drucilla Darby in Lauderdale County Circuit Court to recover the slaves. Judge Thomas A. Walker charged the jury that Praterís administrator could not recover if they believed Martha Prater, in sound mind, had sold the slaves to Richard Darby.
Praterís administrator attempted to amend the charge to the jury. First, he requested that the judge charge the jury that the entire transaction was illegal if they believed it had been a sham sale, but the court refused. Second, he requested that the judge charge the jury that the entire transaction was illegal if they believed Darby had paid only $20 for an obviously more valuable commodity, but the court refused. Third, he requested that the judge charge the jury that the entire transaction was illegal if the $20 actually belonged to Prater, but the court refused. All three of these arguments, plus another that was likewise rejected, would have cancelled the sale and allowed Praterís administrator to recover the slaves.
L.P. and R.W. Harper presented Praterís argument to the Alabama Supreme Court. First, they contended that the sale and the bond were one contract, each dependent upon the other. Second, they argued that, under the 1819 Constitution, the contract was void, as had been argued in Trotter v. Blocker (6 Porter 269). This being the case, Praterís administrator could claim the slaves because Darby had never owned them.
William Cooper presented Darbyís argument to the Alabama Supreme Court. He contended that the sale was valid, but the condition to liberate the slaves void. Darby, however, could take the slaves outside Alabama and liberate them under the authority of the courtís decision in Atwoodís Heirs (21 Alabama 590).
The Courtís Decision
Chief Justice William P. Chilton wrote the decision for the Alabama Supreme Court. He considered the sale and the bond one document. Both parties to the suit had reached the conclusion that the agreement was void, but with different consequences. Praterís administrator argued that this allowed him to recover the slaves. Darby argued that both parties to the original agreement were equally wrong and that, consequently, the possessor of the property had the better claim to it.
Chilton disagreed with both. The true question was whether or not the bond to free the slaves was valid, for if it was, so was the sale. Nothing in Darbyís bond required him to free the slaves in Alabama, which would have been illegal. Furthermore, Prater knew that the slaves could not be liberated in-state. Of course, she could have taken the slaves with her when she left Alabama, but if this was so why could her agent not do the same? This question had been settled in Atwoodís Heirs.
Prater had not attempted to vest the right of freedom in the slaves, which had been the case in Trotter. The decision in that case held that "every conceivable mode of emancipation," other than statutory, was prohibited in Alabama. But Chilton could not perceive "any just rule" that warranted such a conclusion. Why would the people, "the true source of power in a republican government," yield such a common law right and make themselves dependent upon the legislature to exercise it? Furthermore, the power of the legislature to limit certain rights did not abrogate them. There was "no such repugnance between constitutional liberty and common law rights" that made "the bare mention of the latter" as subject to legislation the negation of the former. If this were true, then the United States Constitution denied the states "the right of self-preservation and protection" because the United States guaranteed to each state "protection against invasion and domestic violence."