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The Black Laws in the Old Northwest: A Documentary History

By Stephen Middleton | Go to book overview

Summary of Cases

Although the Ordinance of 1787 bound Indiana to prohibit slavery, its leaders early on found creative ways to circumvent the ordinance. The agricultural potential of Indiana and the interest of immigrating whites to preserve slavery produced successive petitions to Congress to rescind or modify the ordinance, Congress denied their requests. However, by the time Indiana entered the Union as a free state, it had made slavery possible under the guise of indentured servitude. The state supreme court found ways to uphold the prohibition against slavery, approve indentured servitude, and validate the state's racial code as prescribed by the legislature.

Territorial leaders succeeded in rationalizing slavery by arguing that the prohibition in the ordinance applied only to slaves brought into the territory after 1787. According to this interpretation, slaves already in the region, and their children, were unaffected by the Ordinance of 1787. The supreme court rejected this thesis in State v. Lasalle ( 1820). Lasalle, a slave holder, entered Indiana allegedly before adoption of the ordinance. He held Polly, a black woman, as a slave. Abolitionists disputed his claim and carried the case to the supreme court. The court rejected Lasalle's claim, declaring Polly a free woman. Later in Vaughan v. Williams ( 1845), a federal court affirmed the automatic emancipation rule, declaring that slaves were automatically freed when brought into Indiana with the knowledge and consent of their owner. State and federal courts upheld the fugitive slave law, however. As Ray v. Donnell ( 1845) shows, slaves who escaped from a slave jurisdiction were returnable under state and federal fugitive slave laws.

The black laws of Indiana also barred black children from common schools. Occasionally, school masters sympathetic to civil rights admitted black youths to private schools. Invariably, white parents objected, and the dispute ended up in court. Lewis v. Henley ( 1850) addressed this question.

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