Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

STATUS OF SLAVES A 70-YEAR CONFLICT WASHINGTON COUNTY CASE OF JOHN DAVIS INSPIRED NATION'S FIRST LAW DEALING WITH SLAVES IN FREE STATES Series: BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

STATUS OF SLAVES A 70-YEAR CONFLICT WASHINGTON COUNTY CASE OF JOHN DAVIS INSPIRED NATION'S FIRST LAW DEALING WITH SLAVES IN FREE STATES Series: BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Article excerpt

John Davis simply wanted his freedom, but the Maryland slave who ended up in Washington County became a lightning rod in the nation's intensifying debate over slavery.

His largely forgotten odyssey pitted early abolitionists against prideful slaveholders, put governors at odds, spurred vigilante justice and prompted the nation's first fugitive-slave law, a 1793 statute that itself contributed to rising sectional tension.

"This is the beginning of what would be 70 years of conflict over the status of slaves brought into free states," said Paul Finkelman, professor at Albany Law School in New York and visiting professor of law at Louisiana State University.

Pennsylvania began gradual abolition in 1780, while Virginia clung to slavery into the Civil War -- conflicting mindsets that unsettled state boundaries brought into sharp relief.

Decades before West Virginia became a state, both Virginia and Pennsylvania claimed and populated the area that became Washington County. Davis and his owner, who hailed from Maryland, also settled in this disputed territory separating North and South.

Agents for Virginia and Pennsylvania agreed on a boundary in 1779, though surveyors did not fix the line until 1785. Pennsylvania's gradual abolition laws -- the 1780 statute was followed by a 1782 version for Washington and Westmoreland counties and a 1788 statewide update -- required owners to register or forfeit slaves and said most bondsmen thereafter brought into the state would be freed automatically.

Davis' owner, whose name is unknown, neither registered nor freed him. Instead, he took Davis to Virginia in 1788 and hired him out.

At the time, two Virginians defended the slaveholder's actions. William Mimachan and Benjamin Biggs sent a letter to Virginia Gov. Beverley Randolph, saying Davis' owner settled in what he thought would be part of Virginia and, when the new boundary put him in Pennsylvania, left "to avoid the confiscation of his property." It is unclear why Mimachan and Biggs got involved in the matter.

But members of a new group, the Washington Society for the Relief of Free Negroes and Others Unlawfully Held in Bondage, said Davis' owner flouted Pennsylvania law. Taking matters into their own hands, they spirited Davis back to Washington.

The group members' views reflected the nascent state of the local anti-slavery movement. While some owned slaves themselves, they opposed the kidnapping or enslavement of blacks such as Davis who were born free or had earned freedom by other means.

The society included John Hoge, a founder of Washington; Absalom Baird, a Revolutionary War doctor and patriarch of one of the town's early leading families; and David Bradford, who in 1794 became a leading figure in the frontier Whiskey Rebellion.

At the behest of the man who had been renting John Davis, three slave catchers -- Francis McGuire, Baldwin Parsons and Absalom Wells -- arrived in Washington and took him back to Virginia. A Washington County court indicted the three for kidnapping, but Virginia authorities refused to extradite the men for trial.

Each state believed the other's citizens had done wrong. In their 1791 letter, Mimachan and Biggs said the slave catchers had been indicted for a "laudable attempt to rescue the property of their fellow citizens."

Governmental impasse

At the time of the Revolution -- decades before the expansion of cotton production refreshed the demand for slaves -- some observers believed that slavery was incompatible with the new nation's values and would die out. However, Mr. Finkelman said the Davis case reveals the strength of Virginia's commitment to slavery even during the early republican period.

"They're basically saying, black people didn't have any rights," said Mr. Finkelman, who has written about the case in the Journal of Southern History and in his book, "Slavery and the Founders. …

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