It's not often that people are interested in the history of trusts. But this week is different. Brandy Zadrozny over at the Daily Beast broke the news that Ben Affleck's ancestor who's at the center of the PBS-Gates-Affleck story held about twenty-three people in trust for the grandsons of his mother-in-law. That is, Affleck's great-great-great grandfather, Benjamin L. Cole, served as executor of the estate of his mother-in-law, who owned about 23 people at the time of her death -- and that Cole served as trustee of a trust set up to provide for her three grandsons (which I'm figuring this correctly were Cole's nephews by marriage). Cribbing now a little from Zadrozny's article:
The legal difference between owner and executor is clear. An executor is someone who is appointed by a will to dispose of the deceased’s estate, as William Wiecek, professor of public law and legislation emeritus at Syracuse University College of Law [and I want to add one of the greatest legal historians in operation today], explained in an email to The Daily Beast. “You won’t own the property; you will distribute it to those who do.”
A trustee—as Cole was for Norton’s grandchildren—has “the control power, but not ownership,” Wiecek said. “Your legal duty would be to administer the property according to my directions, and distribute the income or profits to the beneficiary.”
The article also quotes another historian of nineteenth-century American law (wink) to the effect that the Daily Beast's finding "shows how deeply the institution of slavery penetrated American finance [and] how deeply the United States law is implicated in the sins of slavery.” I figure I need to enjoy this while it lasts because its not likely to happen again anytime soon. Then again, we live in a world that worships wealth and is increasingly interested in slavery, so perhaps we'll have more people talking about trusts and the role they served in facilitating management of enslaved humans.
Breitbart's been following up on Zadrozny's story, too.
If you're interested in more on testamentary trusts to manage enslaved people, I have a couple of papers on this -- both with former students. One is on Greene County, Alabama; the other is on Rockbridge County, Virginia. And coming soon are papers on slaves and trusts in Petersburg, Virginina, Wilcox County, Alabama and Montgomery, Alabama....