Menard v. Aspasia
Annotate this Case
30 U.S. 505 (1831)
U.S. Supreme Court
Menard v. Aspasia, 30 U.S. 5 Pet. 505 505 (1831)
Menard v. Aspasia
30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 505
The mother of Aspasia, a colored woman, was born a slave at Kaskaskia, in Illinois, previous to 1787 and before that country was conquered for Virginia. Aspasia was born in Illinois subsequent to the passage of the ordinance for the government of that territory. Aspasia was afterwards sent as a slave to the State of Missouri. In Missouri, Aspasia claimed to be free under the "Ordinance for the government of the territory of the United States northwest of the River Ohio," passed 13 July, 1787. The Supreme Court of Missouri decided that Aspasia was free, and Menard, who claimed her as his slave, brought this writ of error under the 25th section of the act of 1789, claiming to reverse the judgment of that court. Held that the case is not within the provisions, of the 25th section of the act of 1789.
The provisions of the compact which relate to "property" and to "rights" are general. They refer to no specific property or class of rights; it is impossible, therefore, judicially to limit their application. If it were admitted that Aspasia is the property of the plaintiff in error, and the Court were to take jurisdiction of the cause under the provisions of the ordinance, must it not on the same ground interpose its jurisdiction in all other controversies respecting property which was acquired in the Northwestern Territory?
Whatever right may be claimed to have originated under the Ordinance of 1787, it would seem that a right to the involuntary service of an individual could not have had its source in that instrument. It declares that "there shall not be slavery nor involuntary servitude in the territory." If this did not destroy a vested right in slaves, it at least did not create or strengthen that right.
If the decision of the Supreme Court of Missouri had been against Aspasia, it might have been contended that the revising power of this Court, under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act, could be exercised. In such a case, the decision would have been against the express provision of the ordinance in favor of liberty, and on that ground, if that instrument could be considered under the circumstances as an act of Congress within the 25th section, the jurisdiction of this Court would be unquestionable. But the decision was not against, but in favor, of the express provision of the ordinance.
The general provisions of the Ordinance of 1787 as to the rights of property cannot give jurisdiction to this Court. They do not come within the 25th section of the Judiciary Act.
An action of assault and battery was instituted in the Circuit Court for the County of St. Louis in the State of Missouri, by Aspasia, a woman of color, to establish her right to freedom. By consent of the parties, and in conformity with the law of that state, the facts were submitted to the determination of the court without the intervention of a jury.
The evidence, as disclosed in the bill of exceptions, established the following case:
The mother of Aspasia, the defendant in error, was born a slave, and was held as such by a French inhabitant of Kaskaskia, Illinois, previous to the year 1787, and after that year was held as a slave by the same individual who was a citizen of that country before its conquest by Virginia, and before the passage of the ordinance for the government of the Northwestern Territory, and who continued to be such afterwards, and was such at the time of Aspasia's birth. Aspasia was born after the year 1787, and from the time of her birth she was raised and held as a slave till sometime in the year 1821, when she was purchased by the plaintiff in error, who immediately after gave her to his son-in-law, Francis Chouteau, then and now residing in St. Louis, Missouri, who held her as a salve till 10 October, 1827, when he returned her to the plaintiff in error in consequence of the claim she set up for her freedom.
Upon the evidence thus given, Menard, by his counsel, moved the court to decide 1. that if it was found from the testimony that the mother of the plaintiff, Aspasia, was a negro woman, and legally held in slavery before and at and after the date of the ordinance passed by the Congress of the United States on 13 July, 1787, entitled, "An ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States, northwest of the River Ohio," at the Village of Kaskaskia, in the late Northwestern Territory, and the plaintiff, Aspasia, was born of such mother subsequent to the adoption of the ordinance aforesaid at the Village of Kaskaskia aforesaid, the plaintiff is not entitled to her freedom, which instruction the court refused to give.
The same party, by his counsel, moved the court to decide 2. that if it was found from the testimony that the mother of Aspasia was a negro woman, legally held in slavery before and at and after the adoption of the ordinance entitled, "An ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the River Ohio," passed by the Congress of the United States, on 13 July, 1787, by a French inhabitant of the Village of Kaskaskia in the Northwestern Territory, and who was a citizen of the same before the conquest of the country by Virginia and afterwards, and that the plaintiff was born at the Village of Kaskaskia aforesaid
of such mother while so held in slavery by such French inhabitant, although subsequent to the date of the ordinance aforesaid she, the plaintiff (Aspasia) was not entitled to her freedom, which instructions the court refused to give. To which refusal in both instances the counsel of Menard excepted, &c. And the court decided that the defendant Menard was guilty, &c., and that Aspasia was not a slave, but free.
This cause was taken to the Supreme Court of Missouri, and the decision aforesaid was affirmed.
This writ of error was prosecuted under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act, passed in 1789.