In August 1825 a ten year old African American child went looking for work along the Philadelphia waterfront. An African American man offered the child, Cornelius Sinclair, a small wage for unloading water melons from a sloop anchored nearby. The two paddled out to the sloop; but upon arriving, Cornelius was bound and held along with several other young free people. Soon the sloop began sailing south into the Delaware bay. Thus began Sinclair's odyssey that took him far from home, into the depths of slavery in the south, as a slave to a tin smith in the state's capital, then to a courtroom in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and many moons later, back home to Philadelphia.
The first stop was Delaware's southern shore. Sinclair and other kidnapping victims were held at the house of the kidnappers along the Delaware-Maryland border for a short while. The kidnappers brought their human cargo to Maryland's chesapeake bay, where another ship took the captives further south. Then followed a journey on foot across Georgia, to Indiana territory in Alabama, and to Tuscaloosa -- the state's capital at the time -- where Sinclair was sold to one James Paul. The rest of the kidnapped people were brought to Mississippi. In a most improbable turn of events Sinclair was rescued by two Methodist ministers. One of them filed a lawsuit on his behalf, while one of their congregants posted an enormous bond. This set in motion a series of lawsuits -- one by James Paul alleging that the ministers had stolen Sinclair -- and defamation suits by both of the ministers against Paul. The lawsuits pitted a violent and misanthropic man, disliked by the community, against two ministers.
In April 1827 Sinclair's freedom suit came to trial before a justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, John Gayle, sitting as a circuit judge. John Gayle is now remembered as the Alabama governor who tried to prosecute a New York abolitionist for sending antislavery literture to Alabama in July 1835. But in April 1827 Gayle was an actor in favor of freedom. Sinclair won his freedom, but it came at an enormous price in time and money. And it seems to have divided the community. As Sinclair departed for Philadelphia, to face down one of his kidnappers in a criminal prosecution there, one of the Methodist ministers headed north to Ohio to live.
Judson Crump and I have our paper about Cornelius Sinclair's twenty-two month odyssey, from free person in Philadelphia to kidnapping victim and enslaved person in Tuscaloosa, back to freedom in Philadelphia, up on ssrn. It is an extraordinary tale and a most unexpected one. This is a story that has been written about only from the perspective of what happened in Philadelphia; no one has, so far as I can tell, yet talked about the constellation of lawsuits in Tuscaloosa. There has been no discussion of what this means for our understanding of the rights of free people in the pre-Civil War south, a topic of growing interest these days from historians like Melvin Ely and Kirt von Daacke, to legal historians like Martha Jones, Judith Schafer, and Leah VanderVelde. Over the next couple of weeks I hope to talk about a lot of different pieces of this puzzle -- from what happened and who the players were in this drama, to its implications for our understanding of the southern legal system, how this case fits into the recent literature on slaves and free people in the southern legal system, and what this says about the meaning of the rule of law in the old South. If you'd like the full story right now, you can read the paper, which we're calling "Cornelius Sinclair's Odyssey," here.
The illustration is Philadelphia's Independence Hall, which I'm using for its connections to the American Revolution rather than Cornelius Sinclair's odyssey.