STRADER V. GRAHAM, 51 U. S. 82 (1850)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Strader v. Graham, 51 U.S. 10 How. 82 82 (1850)

Strader v. Graham

1 U.S. (10 How.) 82


Under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act, this Court has no jurisdiction over the following question, viz.,

"Whether slaves who had been permitted by their master to pass occasionally from Kentucky into Ohio acquired thereby a right to freedom after their return to Kentucky?"

The laws of Kentucky alone could decide upon the domestic and social condition of the persons domiciled within its territory, except so far as the powers of the states in this respect are restrained or duties and obligations imposed upon them by the Constitution of the United States.

There is nothing in the Constitution of the United States that can in any degree control the law of Kentucky upon this subject.

The Ordinance of 1787 cannot confer jurisdiction upon this Court. It was itself superseded by the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, which placed all the states of the Union upon a perfect equality, which they would not be if the Ordinance continued to be in force after its adoption.

Such of the provisions of the Ordinance as are yet in force owed their validity to

Page 51 U. S. 83

acts of Congress passed under the present Constitution, during the territorial government of the Northwest territory, and since to the constitutions and laws of the states formed in it.

The defendant in error, who was a citizen of Kentucky, filed his bill in the Louisville Chancery Court against Jacob Strader and James Gorman, who were citizens of Ohio and owners of the steamboat Pike, which plied between Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, and John Armstrong, who was the captain of said steamboat.

The bill alleged that the complainant was the owner of three negro slaves, George, Henry, and Reuben, of the value of about fifteen hundred dollars each, who had left his residence at Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and made their way to Louisville, whence they were taken on board of said steamboat Pike and carried to Cincinnati, from which place they escaped to Canada and were lost to their owner. Complainant averred that he had a lien on said boat by reason of the asportation of said slaves, for the damages he had sustained, and prayed an attachment and sale of said boat, and general relief.

An attachment was ordered and served, but the boat was relieved upon bond's being given to perform all orders of the court or to have the boat forthcoming.

Two of the defendants in the court below (Strader and Gorman), in their answer, stated that they were not on board the boat at the time of the alleged transportation, had no knowledge of such transportation, and they therefore denied it. They alleged that the boat was under the command of the defendant Armstrong, her captain, and that the negroes in question had been permitted by the complainant to travel out of the commonwealth as if free, and in an amended answer they averred that long before the alleged transportation, the said negroes had actually become free. The answer of Armstrong was substantially to the same effect. There were various proceedings had in the state courts, the case having been twice carried to the Court of Appeals, when Graham finally succeeded in obtaining a decree in the Louisville chancery Court for $3,000 damages, to be paid before a day named, or the boat, her furniture, tackle &c., to be sold if forthcoming, and if not forthcoming, the court to make the necessary order against the obligors, in said forthcoming bond, which decree was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. To reverse the decree of affirmance this writ of error was sued out.

By the statute of Kentucky approved 7 January, 1824, any master or commander of a steamboat or other vessel who shall hire or employ, or take as passengers on board of such

Page 51 U. S. 84

steamboat or other vessel or suffer it to be done or otherwise take out of the limits of the commonwealth any slave or slaves without permission of the master of such slave or slaves shall be liable to damages to the party aggrieved by such removal, and the steamboat or other vessel on board of which such offense was committed shall be liable, and may be proceeded against in chancery, and may be condemned and sold to pay such damages and costs of suit.

The amended act, approved 12 February, 1828, extends the remedies given by the former act so as to embrace the owners, mate, clerk, pilot, and engineer, as well as the master, and they are declared to be liable to the action of the party aggrieved, "either jointly with the masters, or severally, and either at law or in chancery."

It appeared in evidence that the negroes were the slaves of Graham, and that they were musicians; that for their improvement in music two of them were placed under the care of one Williams, who was a skillful performer and leader of a band, and were permitted to go with him to Louisville and other places and play with him at public entertainments. The following permit was filed as an exhibit, and proved.

"Harrodsburg, August 30, 1837"

"This is to give liberty to my boys, Henry and Reuben, to go to Louisville, with Williams and to play with him till I may wish to call them home. Should Williams find it his interest to take them to Cincinnati, New Albany, or any part of the South, even so far as New Orleans, he is at liberty to do so. I receive no compensation for their services except that he is to board and clothe them."

"My object is to have them well trained in music. They are young, one 17 and the other 19 years of age. They are both of good disposition and strictly honest, and such is my confidence in them that I have no fear that they will ever [act] knowingly wrong, or put me to trouble. They are slaves for life, and I paid for them an unusual sum; they have been faithful, hard-working servants, and I have no fear but that they will always be true to their duty, no matter in what situation they may be placed."


"P.S. Should they not attend properly to their music, or disobey Williams, he is not only at liberty, but requested, to bring them directly home."


Under this permission, Williams, in the year 1837, made several excursions with his band, including the slaves Reuben and Henry, to Cincinnati, Ohio, and New Albany and Madison,

Page 51 U. S. 85

Indiana, for the purpose of playing at balls or public entertainments, after which he returned to Louisville, his place of residence, said slaves returning with him, from which time to the time of their escape in 1841 they had remained within the State of Kentucky.

Page 51 U. S. 92

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