In 1835, the Baltimore City Court heard the freedom petition of Beverly Dowling. The basis of his case was a parol contract he had made with his mistress, Sophia Bland. By statute, Maryland slaves could only be manumitted by deed or will, and even then only under specific circumstances. Beverly Dowling could claim neither a deed of manumission nor any under a will. Nonetheless, he prevailed in the case.
The record of the Baltimore City Court (housed at the Maryland Archives) holds some very interesting facts. On August 7, 1833, Beverly Dowling and Sophia Bland made an agreement: his freedom for a payment of $200. Dowling promised $100 up front and $100 over six months. On August 17, 1833 he made a payment of $100. It would take him another fourteen months to make an additional payment of $23. We know the precise timing of the payments because Beverly Dowling deposited them in the Bank of the Chesapeake where he received the antebellum equivalent of a bank check and a receipt from the bank’s cashier before paying Sophia Bland’s agent.
A lot happened in the fourteen months between Beverly Dowling’s first payment of $100 and second payment of $23. Sophia Bland’s agent wrote several letters to her complaining about the arrangement. (The letters did not make the appellate record because the court refused to admit them into evidence.) On June 7, 1834, Sophia empowered another agent of hers “to act as he thought proper” regarding the management of her Baltimore slaves. About a week later, this second agent instructed the Baltimore constable to arrest Beverly Dowling and “inquire what price could be had for him.”
All of this happened without Beverly Dowling’s knowledge. It was not until he made his second payment of $23, on October 25, 1834, that James Law told Dowling that “his mistress was not satisfied with his conduct, and would not ratify the contract she had made to set him free,” presumably because he was so tardy with his payment. This was news to Dowling, who offered to pay interest on the overdue amount.
Dowling was clearly spooked. The trial record suggests that he took extra precautions making his next payment of $50, on June 1, 1835 (nearly nineteen months after his first payment). At trial, the cashier of the Bank of the Chesapeake testified that this was the “first time” that he had heard about the contract, and that he had heard about it from Sophia Bland herself. Given that he had been receiving the payments all along, it seems reasonable that Dowling himself made certain to have the cashier note the precise reason for his payments to his mistress. Then Dowling, sometime between June and October of 1835, worked as a waiter on a steamboat from Baltimore to New York City in order to earn the remainder of the money to buy his freedom.
In October of 1835—just over two years after he had entered into a contract to purchase his freedom—he made his last payment of $27 to the bank. But Sophia Bland’s agent refused the check and Dowling was arrested on the streets of Baltimore as a runaway. While in jail, Bland sold Dowling to Austin Woolfolk of Baltimore. And then Dowling filed his petition.
The judges of the Baltimore City Court did not instruct the jury that the contract was enforceable. Rather, they instructed the jury that, if they found from the facts that Sophia Bland had indeed made the contract that it could be taken as evidence that she had given an implied consent to her slave to travel. If she gave this consent, and if he had then traveled to New York and become free by New York’s laws, then Sophia Bland could not reclaim Dowling as a slave without violating Maryland’s law forbidding the importation of slaves into the state. The jury found for Dowling.
There are several remarkable aspects about this case. Beverly Dowling may not have had a written contract, but he had a trail of evidence, including receipts for his payments to Sophia Bland. Her lawyers took this seriously, going to great lengths to prove that, even if such a contract had existed, it was Dowling who had breached its terms. Her consent to leave the state could not inferred and, in any case, her lawyers argued that the facts proved she had withdrawn her consent well before Dowling’s travel to New York. The judges refused to admit pivotal evidence in this regard (rejecting James O. Law’s letters as hearsay) and refused to instruct the jury in her favor.
Why would they do so? Sophia Bland was a rich woman, a resident of Annapolis and the sister of Theodorick Bland, the High Chancellor of Maryland. If there was local animus in Baltimore against the Bland family, I have found no evidence of it. There was no case law in Maryland holding that slaveholders who consented to their slaves’ travel to a free jurisdiction lost their property interest. The most plausible conclusion, at this stage of my research, is that the judges invented a technicality to allow the jury space to reach the conclusion that the spirit of the contract ought to be honored.
Bland’s lawyers, of course, had good reason to believe they would prevail on appeal. I will touch on this in another post. But in the mean time, the judges and jury of the Baltimore City Court had indicated that African-Americans did indeed have rights that the white man was bound to respect.
(One note—I have not mentioned in this blog post my considerable debts to the scholarship of Al Brophy, Martha Jones, Kelly Kennington, Loren Schweninger, Rebecca Scott, Anne Twitty, and Lea VanderVelde, all of whom have written extensively on such freedom petitions, and anyone familiar with their scholarship will see some parallels between this case and the evidence that they analyzed.)