RESPUBLICA v. BETSEY - 1 U.S. 469 (1789)


U.S. Supreme Court

RESPUBLICA v. BETSEY, 1 U.S. 469 (1789)

1 U.S. 469 (Dall.)

Respublica v. Negro Betsey, et al.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania September Term, 1789

This was a Habeas Corpus ad subjiciendum, which had been allowed by Mr. Justice Bryan, and, afterwards, brought by him before the Court. The case was twice argued; first on the 29th of June 1786, by Bradford, on behalf of Samuel Moore, who claimed the negroes as his servants, and by Lewis, in behalf of the negroes; and a second time, in April term 1789. by the same counsel for the claimant, and by Ingersoll and Fisher for the defendants. The Court having held the matter under advisement till the present term, the Judges delivered their opinions separately, in the following order; the Chief Justice stating the circumstances of the case, and the arguments of the Counsel, in the course of his observations.

M'Kean, Chief Justice The negro Betsey, for whom the Habeas Corpus issued (and upon whose fate, that of the two other negroes depends) was born before the 1st of March 1780, to wit, in the year 1779, and her name, age, sex, &c. were not registered in the office of the Clerk of the Peace of the county of Chester, in which the master, Samuel Moore, then inhabited, on, or before, the 1st of November, 1780, agreeably to the directions of the act of Assembly, entitled, 'An act for the gradual abolition of Slavery,' passed on the 1st of March, 1780. See 2 State Laws 282. The question, that is submitted to our consideration upon these facts, is, whether the negro can be held as a servant until she attains the age of twenty eight years? or, whether she is absolutely free? On the part of the master, it has been argued, that, although by the fifth and tenth sections of the act of Assembly, the owner, or master, of any negro, or mulatto, slave, or servant for life, or for thirty one years, then within the State, or his lawful attorney, ought to cause such negro, or mulatto, to be registered on, or before, the 1st day of November 1780; yet, by the fourth section, it is provided, that every negro, or mulatto child, born within this State, after the passing of the act, who, in case the act had not passed, would have been born a servant for thirty one years, for life, or a slave, should be deemed a servant until the age of twenty eight years. It was urged also, that the legislature could not intend a greater favor to negroes and mulattoes, born as slaves, or servants for life, or until the age of thirty one years, before the passing of that act, than to those born after; that the intention of the Legislature is to govern in the construction of this act, which, as

Page 1 U.S. 469, 470

well as in all other legislative acts, in doubtful cases, must be construed according to the reason and sense of the law-makers, expressed in the several parts of the act, or to be collected by considering the frame and design of the whole. 11 Mod. 161. And that the maxim is, Uhi eadem ratio, ibi idem jus. For the negro Betsey, the counsel have agreed in the rule for the construction of acts of Assembly, but, they argue that the 5th section of the act under consideration is positive, that all negroes and mulattoes, held as slaves, or servants for life, or until the age of thirty one years, should be registered before the 1st of November 1780, or that they should be free; that this was the intention of the Legislature is confirmed by the 10th section, which declares that they shall be deemed freemen and free-women; that where the words are express and positive, there is no room left for construction; that the law favors liberty more than property; and that if the case should appear doubtful, the judgment should be in favor of the liberty of negro Betsey. Since the argument, the Court have again read the act of Assembly and maturely considered that, and the several reasons urged by the learned Counsel on both sides; and as this is the first case that has come before them upon the arguments of Counsel, and as the judgment now to be given, will govern in all cases of the like fort for the future, it seems to be proper to give the grounds and reasons upon which they found their decision. It may be observed, that neither in the fifth nor tenth sections, is it said, that negroes or mulattoes held as slaves, or for life, or until thirty one years of age, not registered on or before the 1st of November 1780, shall be free, and discharged from any longer service, but only (by the 5th sect.) that they shall not be deemed to be slaves, or servants for life, or until the age of thirty one years; and by the tenth section it is added, that they shall be deemed as freemen and free-women. The words 'freemen and free-women,' seem to have been used in opposition to the word 'slaves,' or 'servants for life,' or, 'until the age of thirty one years,' and not to mean, that they shall be absolutely free from every species of servitude. Had this been the intention of the Legislature, words were easily to be found to express it in the most unequivocal manner. There is a section in this act of Assembly, which was not adverted to by the Counsel on the first hearing, that contributes to clear up the intention of the Legislature on this point: It is the sixth, and comes in by way of proviso or restraint upon the fifth. There, the owners or masters of any such negroes or mulattoes, 'tho' not registered,' shall be answerable for their maintenance in case they become paupers, unless such owners or masters shall manumit them before they arrive at the age of twenty eight years; by which it is evidently implied, that the former owners or masters may still have an interest in them, notwithstanding they should not be registered; otherwise, why should it be made a condition of an [1 U.S. 469, 471]




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