Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 2

Editorial Note

Adams' Minutes of the Trial

Slew v. Whipple: 1766 Slew v. Whipple: 1766
Slew v. Whipple
Adams’ Copy of the Declaration, and Report<a xmlns="" href="#LJA02d017n1" class="note" id="LJA02d017n1a">1</a>: Essex Superior Court, Salem, November 1766 JA Adams’ Copy of the Declaration, and Report: Essex Superior Court, Salem, November 1766 Adams, John
Adams' Copy of the Declaration, and Report1
Essex Superior Court, Salem, November 1766
Essex Ss. Novr. 1766. Superior Court.

Jenny Slew of Ipswich in the County of Essex Spinster Plaintiff vs. John Whipple Jnr. of said Ipswich Gentleman, Defendant, in a Plea of Trespass, for that the said John upon the 29th January 1762 at Ipswich aforesaid, with Force and Arms, took her the said Jenny, held and kept her in servitude as a Slave, in his service, and has restrain'd her of her Liberty from that Time to the fifth of March last, without any lawful Authority or Right so to do, and did her other Injuries against the Peace, and to the Damage of the said Jenny Slew as she saith, £25.


Defendant pleaded, that there is no such Person in Nature as Jenny Slew of Ipswich aforesaid Spinster and this the said John is ready to verify, wherefore he prays Judgment &c.

Evidence was that she was originally called Jenny Slew, but that she had been severally Times married to slaves &c.

Writ did not abate. 2 Judges for Abatement and 2 against it. So being divided could not abate.2


In JA's hand. Adams Papers, Microfilm, Reel No. 185. This document is in the same leaflet with Doc. II, but on a separate page. Because it repeats some of JA's minutes, it may have been written later, perhaps with a view to inclusion in a collection of forms or pleadings.


Thomas Hutchinson, Chief Justice, and Chambers Russell were the members of the court not mentioned in JA's minute (Doc. II). But Russell was at the time of this trial out of Massachusetts; he left the Province on 16 Oct. 1766 and died in Guilford, England, 24 November. 9 Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates 86–87. It would seem that Hutchinson, C.J., and Lynde, J., favored abatement and Oliver and Cushing, JJ., opposed.

Adams’ Minutes of the Argument<a xmlns="" href="#LJA02d018n1" class="note" id="LJA02d018n1a">1</a>: Essex Superior Court, Salem, November 1766 JA Adams’ Minutes of the Argument: Essex Superior Court, Salem, November 1766 Adams, John
Adams' Minutes of the Argument1
Essex Superior Court, Salem, November 1766
Slew vs. Whipple.

Gridley. Marriage is of the Law of Nations. Justinian extends it, even to the Brutes.2


The Court adjudgd at Worcester that a Married Woman could not call herself Spinster.3

Writ not abated.4

Kent. I shall not enter into the Right of some Men to enslave others.5 This Right in some Places seems established. Not indeed a Right to Life,6 tho this is assumed in West Indies to the shame of human Nature.

Evidence was that Jenny Slew was commonly reputed to be the Child of Betty Slew a white Woman by a Negro Man.

Mr. Goffe. 7

Gridley. Shall Trespass be maintained? Shall not the Plaintiff who sues in Trespass for Goods be compell'd to prove his Possession and that it was by force taken out of his Possession. She has never been in Possession of her Liberty, she has been out of Possession of it for 50 years. Trespass is the highest Action of the highest Nature in Law. No other civil action in which the Party may be punished criminally.8

Kent. In the Case of the East Indian at Charlestown they pleaded in Bar that she was a slave, and produced the Bill of Sale. Why did not they do so here?9

J. Oliver. This is a Contest between Liberty and Property—both of great Consequence, but Liberty of most importance of the two.

J. Cushing. It is not long since King's attorney brought an Action of Trespass, in such a Case as this,10 and I think he was right, for if a Person is free he may bring Trespass at any Time.


Partus sequitur ventrem.11 Colour is a Presumption.12

Lynde. Trespass has commonly been brought, I13


In JA's hand; a fragment only. Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 185.


Jeremiah Gridley, of counsel for defendant.

“Natural Law is that which nature has taught to all animals, for this law is not peculiar to the human race, but applies to all creatures which originate in the air, or the earth, and in the sea. Hence arises the union of the male and the female which we designate marriage; and hence are derived the procreation and the education of children; for we see that other animals also act as though endowed with knowledge of this law.” Justinian, Institutes 1.2 (transl. in 2 Scott, Civil Law 5).

Note the citation of civil law authority and the appeal to natural law. Gridley's argument was that if brutes could marry, slaves could. He may have been trying to avoid the thrust of an act of 1706 for “Better Preventing of a Spurious and Mixt Issue,” 1 A&R 578:

“And be it . . . enacted . . . that none of her majesty's English or Scottish subjects, nor of any other Christian nation within the province, shall contract matrimony with any negro or molatto. . . . And no master shall unreasonably deny marriage to his negro with one of the same nation, any law, usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.”

To defeat Gridley's plea in abatement, plaintiff had to convince the court that she had never been validly married. The brief JA minutes suggest several alternative contentions. It is possible that in moving to abate, Gridley was assuming, arguendo, that the plaintiff was free and white; his natural-law citation was thus an answer to the argument that plaintiff's marriages with Negroes were statutorily void. It is also possible that plaintiff had argued that she was a mulatto and that the statute voided any marriage between her and a Negro. And it is possible, despite evidence of her marriage to slaves, that she was at some time married to a white man; if so, she would be justifying use of “spinster” by insisting that the statute voided that marriage also. Because of the sketchy nature of the notes, we cannot tell exactly. We cannot even be sure that Gridley was invoking natural law to control a statute; it may be that he was merely trying to regularize relationships in which (despite JA's use of the word) there had been no “marriages” at all.


It is unclear whether Gridley refers to the Inferior or Superior Court. The case cited has not been identified.


The note refers apparently not to the Worcester case, but to this one.


Benjamin Kent, counsel for plaintiff. His point, echoed by Judge Cushing (text at note 11 13 below), was that, because Jenny's mother was a white woman, Jenny could not be a slave, no matter what her father's status.


That is, the right to enslave does not give the master the right of life and death over his slaves.


That is, Edmund Trowbridge, who in early life used the name of his guardian and great-uncle, Edmund Goffe. 8 Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates 508.


Trespass was a misdemeanor at common law; the tort is considered to have criminal roots, and Gridley may have been thinking of the early common law, where criminal sanctions sometimes resulted from a civil action for trespass. See Plucknett, Concise History 456–458; 5 Bacon, Abridgment 150; 3 Holdsworth, History of English Law 331–333. Compare Fifoot, History and Sources 44–56. But there is a question whether trespass was the only civil action in which the party might be punished criminally. Id. at 45–46.


The Charlestown case has not been identified.


The King's attorney would have been Trowbridge, who was Attorney General of the Province, 1749–1767. Whitmore, Mass. Civil List 124. The case has not been identified.


The child follows the mother, i.e., the child takes the mother's status. See note 5 7 above.


In view of Cushing's apparent position favoring the action, he seems here to be saying that the plaintiff's color raised only a presumption as to her status, which presumption was rebutted by evidence of ancestry.


MS breaks off at foot of page; remainder missing.