Historic Iowa Court Case Upheld Freedom of Ex-Slave By Vincent Butler (Drake University Journalism Student) DESMOINES-When the Iowa territorial Supreme Court first began reviewing cases in July 1839, a monumental case was quickly thrust upon it. The court decided that a slave, set free, could not be enslaved again for any reason The ruling conflicted with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which gave slaveowners the right to go into a free state or territory to capture "fugitive" slaves. It also came at a time when the Iowa territorial legislature had enacted many laws trying to restrict the number of blacks in its domain. The case is in the Iowa Reports, a bobk that reviews many territorial Supreme Court cases, as being "In the matter of Ralph '(A colored man) on Habeas Corpus." The controversy started in 1834 when a man named Montgomery, who resided in Missouri, and his slave Ralph came to a contractual agreement. Ralph was to pay $550 in exchange for his freedom, beginning Jan. 1, 1835. At the time, Ralph apparently was sincere in saying he would pay his debt. Dubuque then was a vast reservoir for mining lead ore, and Ralph heard reports that a fortune awaited anyone with a strong back and a willingness to work hard. .When reaching Dubuque, Ralph found it to be "a typical mining town." The townspeople were basically of Spanish, French, Irish and German heritage. According to an article in an early Palimpsest magazine, the miners in this Northeast Iowa town spent much of their leisure time getting drunk and gambling and the residents were a rugged sort, always, looking for a fight. After a period of five years, Ralph was unable to earn enough money to pay off his debt. Two miners from Virginia heard about Ralph's problem and saw an excellent opportunity to make some Tlm«t H«rald, Carrall, la. _ Wednesday, March 10, 1976 3 •"* • »••<•.......«.„...„ quick cash. The Virginians sent a letter to Montgomery telling him of Ralph's whereabouts. Montgomery, who had given up the idea of getting his money from the ex-slave, jumped at the opportunity to get back Ralph. He offered $100 to the miners for Ralph's return. The Virginians found Ralph working in a mine west of Dubuque. They jumped the black man, handcuffed him and dragged him away from the mines. Fortunately for Ralph, Alexander Butterworth, farming nearby, observed the incident. Butterworth contacted Thomas Wilson, an associate justice of the Iowa territorial Supreme Court, who lived in Dubuque. Wilson ordered Dubuque sheriff George Cummings to track down the kidnapers. The miners wer? apprehended near Bellevue and taken back to Dubuque. When Wilson heard the .details of the incident, he decided that the case would be too important for a district , court. The Iowa territorial Supreme Court consisted of three members — Chief Justice Charles Mason, associate justices Joseph Williams and Wilson. Mason graduated from West Point with the likes of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. After graduating from law school in New York, Mason became editor of the New York Evening Post. He soon went back into law becoming the district attorney in Burlington. Mason was appointed chief justice by President Martin Van Buren in 1838. One of the better lawyers in the state, David Rorer, was hired as Ralph's attorney while John V. Berry of Dubuque was Montgomery^ lawyer. Rorer contended that Montgomery, having signed an agreement giving Ralph freedom, had forfeited his right ever to own the slave again. Rorer added that Ralph's only obligation to his ex-master was the payment of the debt. Berry argued that Ralph had not kept his part of the contract so the black man was nothing more than a fugitive slave. After listening to both arguments, Mason gave the court's opinion: "When a slave with his master's consent becomes a resident of a free state or territory he could not be regarded thereafter as a fugitive slave, nor could the master under such circumstances exercise any rights of ownership over him." The court justices believed that slavery would virtually exist in Iowa if Ralph was forced back into slavery. This case was very similar to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Dred Scott in 1857, except for the outcome. Scott had lived in a shack near Davenport to hold the land for his master. After living in a free state for nearly four years, Scott considered himself a free man. Chief Justice Roger Taney, in his court opinion, said that no black man could be considered a citizen of the United States in a constitutional sense. Ralph's case was never mentioned in the Scott , decision. Ralph returned to Dubuque after the trial and started mining again. 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