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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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Judge Jacobs and His Dinah

Reading about Harvey Amani Whitfield’s new book on slavery lingering in Vermont even after being banned in the new republic’s 1777 constitution led me to this Vermont Today article from 2006 about a court case in the early 1800s.

All the parties agreed that Stephen Jacobs had bought a woman named Dinah as a slave in 1783, the same year he moved to Windsor, Vermont. A Yale-educated lawyer, Jacobs prospered eventually became a member of Vermont’s supreme court. As for Dinah, by the end of the century she had become “infirm, sick, and blind,” needing support.

But who had the responsibility to provide that support? New England towns had funds for their poor citizens, but Windsor felt that Dinah should be Jacobs’s charge alone. He insisted that he would pay his share of taxes for her support but no more.

In 1800 Jacobs’s lawyers got the case thrown out on the ground that the deputy sheriff who had served the action was also a citizen of Windsor and therefore had an interest in the case. The town appealed.

In 1802 the Windsor selectmen’s attorney argued that Jacobs had “discarded” Dinah two years earlier when she was no longer of value to him. Jacobs’s lawyers responded that “several of the inhabitants of Windsor…[had] inveigled her from her master’s family and service by the syren songs of liberty and equality” and that she had “spent the vigour of her life with these people.” The record is unclear about when that happened and how long Dinah had been away from Jacobs’s household.

The judge who decided the dilemma was Boston native Royall Tyler. He convinced his colleagues that the 1783 bill of sale for Dinah carried no legal weight under Vermont’s constitution and therefore the town could not introduce it as evidence that Jacobs legally owned the woman. No evidence, no case. I can’t help but get the sense that the state judiciary was looking for ways to decide in favor of their colleague.

Windsor paid for Dinah’s board in different houses over the next few years, for her medical care and burial. However, town records continued to refer to her as “Judge Jacob’s Dinah.”


mfuhrer said...

We can only imagine what Dinah thought of all this dis-owning.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, we’re missing Dinah’s voice in this dispute. She lived for several years after the case began, but we don’t know how old she was or what her full experiences were.

The prospect of being discarded with no support or property when old and sick was a nightmare that motivated some enslaved people to resist emancipation—they saw it basically as a scam to let their masters get out of the obligations of lifetime care. And a case like this is hard to interpret any other way.