Slave hireling contracts had an implied stipulation that the slave was employed in an honest pursuit.
If this were not the case, the owner could rescind the contract and take possession of the slave.
In such a case, the hirer would be responsible only for the actual value of the services rendered.
Evidence that the hirer engaged in illegal activities--without evidence that he employed the slave in them--could not be submitted to the jury.
Facts of the Case
Willis hired a slave to Brantley from January 1, 1841, to January 1, 1842, but on November 13, 1842, Willis and several other persons came to Brantley's home and took the slave without his consent. In Dallas County Circuit Court, Willis proved that Brantley, his father, and his brother operated "a poorly furnished grop shop, about which negroes resorted," and received stolen goods from them, "knowing them to be stolen." He further argued that Brantley employed his slave in this fashion and offered that for justification for having removed him. Such employment not only impaired the morals of the slave, but also put his life in danger. The court charged the jury that if Brantley employed the slave in illegal activities then Willis had been justified in removing him. Furthermore, Willis was entitled to recover compensation for the time the slave had been in Brantley's possession.
The Court's Decision
Judge John J. Ormond wrote the opinion for the Alabama Supreme Court. He noted that under normal circumstances and 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 legal pursuit. If not, the morals of the slave could be impaired and his value reduced. He even risked loss of life. In such an instance, it was not sufficient to argue that the slave owner could recover damages, for it would be impossible to measure the damages inflicted by debauching the morals of a slave. Furthermore, "in the downward career of vice, in its progress from the commission of one crime to that of another of deeper dye," the slave might eventually forfeit his life. In that case, it would be impossible "to trace the consummation of his guilt to his initiation in crime" by Brantley. In this particular case, however, Willis had only demonstrated that Brantley employed slaves in illegal activities, not that his slave had been employed in illegal activities. To hold him guilty under these circumstances required "violent and strained presumptions."
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