In my continuing discussion of Cornelius Sinclair's journey from freedom to slavery in Alabama, back to freedom I want to focus now on the judge at his trial in Tuscaloosa.
One of my favorite books -- in fact, I think one of the best works ever written in American legal history -- is Robert Cover's 1975 book Justice Accused. It's about judges who were antislavery in private, but who issued proslavery opinions. He's interested in the constraints that judges faced and questions about how much law constrained them and how they explained the limits of their options. This was a topic of great concern to abolitionists during the era of slavery, for they recognized that legal doctrine was an important barrier even if judges were inclined against slavery.
There were, also, some judges who were the opposite of this. That is, proslavery jurists who issued antislavey decisions. They've received a lot less attention over the years, perhaps partly because it's hard to believe that anyone would actually support slavery I'm guessing. But also because it's less interesting to look at judges making what we believe were correct decisions. One of my favorite examples along these lines is John Catron, who issued a zealously proslavery concurrence in Dred Scott. But before he went on the US Supreme Court, he was a justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court, where he upheld a will freeing a testator's enslaved humans. I don't think anyone would confuse Catron with an abolitionist, but he was working within the framework that was already established by law.
That leads me to ask about the jurist who presided over Cornelius Sinclair's freedom trial in Tuscaloosa in 1827: John Gayle. It's hard to know what to make of him -- he was a slave-owner and as governor of Alabama in 1835 he tried to prosecute a New York resident who sent abolitionist literature to people in Alabama. So he was a beneficiary and participant in the system of slavery. Then again, he also was a vice-president of the Alabama Colonization Society when it formed in the early 1830s. The Colonization movement was a big tent, which stretched from those who were zealously antislavery but could not get away with anything more radical than colonization to people who were racially intolerant and longed for a world without people of African descent. Where Gayle fell in that spectrum remains unclear, but I think the scholars who are re-orienting us towards the view that colonization was a cover for more radical people are onto something.
It's hard to know what to make of Gayle -- he was the author of only a few opinions in his brief stint on the Alabama Supreme Court (he heard Sinclair's case while serving as a circuit judge). One of them, however, freed a slave who had been convicted of attempted rape and sentenced to death, because the slave was not tried soon enough. Gayle seems less zealously proslavery than many. Perhaps Gayle was antislavery in private, even as politics constrained his more anti-slavery actions. I hope that is true, anyway.
Next up will be Sinclair's purchaser, James Paul -- about whom we know a surprising amount, none of it good.
The image of John Gayle is from the Alabama Department of Archives and History web page on him.