J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Godfrey Wenwood versus Robert

When we last saw Newport baker Godfrey Wenwood (also spelled Wenwood), he was trying to convince an ex-girlfriend to reveal who had entrusted her with a coded letter. It turned out that letter had come from Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., and it ended his career as a spy for the British authorities.

Googling for more information about Wenwood brought me to this website at Brown University describing a court case from 1789 that involved him and and a former worker. Because that worker, named Robert, was an escaped slave, their dispute became a test case over slavery in Rhode Island.

Here’s how the case started:

Born as a slave in Virginia, Robert ran away from his master in the spring of 1781 with the hopes of obtaining his freedom by serving in the British army during the American Revolution. However, Robert never reached the British army and instead mistakenly boarded a French vessel. The French vessel traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, where Godfrey Wainwood purchased Robert at an auction. The two signed an agreement that Robert would become free after serving Wainwood for a period of years, but, rather than waiting for his indenture to end, Robert ran away in May of 1789.
After Robert was captured and put in jail, the Providence Abolition Society, led by Quaker Abolitionist and reformer Moses Brown (shown above), obtained his release through a writ of habeas corpus, which until recently has been a pillar of English and American law. Going to court, Robert claimed that his agreement with Wenwood was to last only seven years. Wenwood argued that it should last nine. They sued and countersued over who had the proper claim to Robert’s labor as an indentured servant.

The jury considered the law of the time and decided that Robert was still a slave—to his master in Virginia. Therefore, they said, he had no standing in court.

Shortly after that, the two men reached a settlement, with Brown signing on behalf of Robert (since he still had no legal standing). They dropped their suits, and I believe that stopped the jury’s decision from becoming a binding precedent.

Because of that private settlement, there are still a lot of questions about the case, despite all the documents on the Brown website. I’m particularly curious about the real relationship between Godfrey Wenwood and Robert. The 1790 U.S. census lists Robert as living in Newport with the surname Wenwood. Did he take that last name simply out of custom, or under pressure from the legal authorities, or was Robert actually more grateful to Wenwood than their suit would indicate? Did they go back to working together? Did Brown buy Wenwood’s acquiescence? We’ll probably never know. But the Brown website shows one way that Americans were seeking freedom within the traditions and laws of the early federal society.

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