Inhumanity often hides behind the law. It wraps itself in a comforting blanket of bland legal language, and hopes no one will notice it’s there.
The recent resurgence of Solomon Northup’s 1853 narrative Twelve Years a Slave, fueled by the release of the popular movie of the same name, has brought Americans once again face to face with the insidious qualities of “our peculiar institution.” Born free in New York, Northup was lured south to Washington, DC, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He eventually regained his freedom after extraordinary measures, but after lengthy legal proceedings, he was unable to bring his kidnappers to account. A black man could not testify against a white man in Washington, and the New York courts failed to prosecute them.
Perhaps his tale might be easier to bear if it were an isolated incident. And yet, his story is just the tip of a horrifying iceberg. Thousands of free born men, women and children suffered the same fate in the four score years between the end of the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Two former members of Constitution’s crew faced the same ordeal, but their stories had even less satisfactory resolutions.
David Debias was born on the back side of Boston’s Beacon Hill in 1806. This was the town’s most diverse neighborhood in the early nineteenth century, but also the poorest. On December 17, 1814, Debias’s father enlisted him in the Navy and sent him on board Constitution. Scarcely eight years old, David was rated a boy and assigned as a servant to Master’s Mate Nathaniel G. Leighton. He was discharged and paid off in July 1815. His father collected his pay - for seven months service he received $31.98.
With several years of sailing experience under his belt, Debias joined the merchant fleet. In 1821, he enlisted in the Navy again, and once again sailed in Constitution, this time to the Mediterranean Sea. He returned to the U.S. in 1824 and reentered the merchant service. In 1838, he left his ship in Mobile, Alabama. We don’t know his motivations for leaving the docks. Surely he must have known the dangers facing a free person of color in the south.
Detained as a runaway slave in Winchester, Mississippi, Debias’s plight caught the attention of a local lawyer named Thomas Falconer. Convinced by his story that Debias was a free man, Falconer wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, seeking proof of his naval service. The Secretary complied with Falconer’s request and sent an outline of Debias’s service, but because the local courthouse burned later in the nineteenth century we have no record of his fate.
Ordinary Seaman Henry Jackson had a more maddening experience with southern courts. Born free in Washington, DC about 1812, he was “put under the protection and in the service of lieutenant Delany” by his sister when he was eight or ten years old. The identity of this Delany is in question, since there was no man by that name in the Navy Register for this period, but it was probably Marine Lt. William Dulaney. Both Dulaney and Jackson reported for duty on board Constitution at Port Mahon, Minorca on December 3, 1825. Jackson is listed as an “idler” in the ship’s station bills, meaning he stood no regular watch. This suggests that he did act as a servant to Dulaney, and he also fulfilled a number of unskilled tasks when the ship got underway, changed tack, or cleared for action.
Jackson was discharged from the ship in July 1828 and returned to Washington. “Shortly after he was clandestinely, forcibly, and fraudulently sent to New Orleans by the said lieutenant Delany… and sold as a slave.” Such a duplicitous act hardly seems worthy of a man praised by Congress for his “conspicuous gallantry and untiring energy and devotion,” but such was the reality of the situation. In a desperate bid to secure his freedom, Jackson sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy in 1835 requesting verification of his naval service. As in Debias’s case, the Secretary obliged, but the documentation was not sufficient to secure his release.
In 1838, the case finally came before a New Orleans jury, but predictably they found in favor of the defendant, Henry Dunbar Bridges. Jackson appealed the decision and the Louisiana Supreme Court heard his case in 1841. For a man like Jackson, there would be no justice under the law of the land. The court ruled that he had failed to show he was born free or had been emancipated. The testimony of shipmates, who considered him free, and of the Secretary of the Navy, who said no slaves were ever “engaged or received on board of vessels belonging to the United States,” were not sufficient evidence. According to the court’s ruling, their testimony “shows the belief which existed in the minds of these witnesses that the plaintiff was free, but leaves us uninformed as to the evidence or grounds on which this belief rested; nor is it shown that the plaintiff has been in the possession of his freedom during the time, and under the circumstances, required by law to entitle him to it by prescription. Nothing that we can see in this record makes it our duty to interfere with the verdict of the jury.”
How could a man fight a system where all the cards were stacked against him? Sold into slavery by the very person he served, denied the dignity of a veteran, and converted into private property by a court system that could only see the color of his skin, Henry Jackson slips out of history after that final ruling. We like to think he escaped and made his way home, but it is likely he perished in the cane fields of Louisiana.