The trails left by Thomas Jones and Josiah Small took me into the ranks of the small farmers of Chowan County, men who, according to Guion Johnson, “sought the county offices and delighted in the title of ’squire which the position of justice of the peace carried with it.” This was the class to whom the community looked for leadership.
John Mann’s story was a different matter. By 1829 he was an old widowed sea captain. His house, a gift from a fellow mariner, had been forfeited as a result of a couple of lawsuits (one brought by the planter Josiah Collins). Through elaborate stratagems—quite possibly fraudulent conveyances—his benefactor and others had bought it back for his benefit. Armed with these facts, I decided to check out a file called “insolvent debtors.”
John Mann’s 1812 bankruptcy file is the largest in the Chowan County records! The insolvent debtor statute did not discharge any debt; it simply forestalled collection until the debtor had assets again. It doesn’t appear that Mann ever crawled out from under his mountain of debt—and that may well explain why the case against him was brought in criminal rather than civil court.
Who was his attorney? The trial report says Mann’s attorney asked for a new trial. More interestingly, the new trial was sought on the very ground on which Ruffin would reverse the conviction: “Counsel for the defendant moved for a new trial, upon the ground, that it was not indictable for the defendant to punish the negro however cruel that punishment might be, he having hired the negro for the year 1828 and was her master for the time being.” Who was he?
I have a theory—thin, but tantalizing, because it would tie the story of Lydia to that of Harriet Jacobs in a way that dramatizes the contradictions (to put it mildly) inherent in a culture in which some human beings were both “property” and “persons.”
Certain circumstantial evidence points to Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, son of a wealthy old family, descended from Samuel Johnston, a Revolutionary patriot and member of the first U.S. Supreme Court. By the fall of 1829, Sawyer was secretly involved with Harriet Jacobs; during that year she bore the first of their two children. He was an Edenton attorney with a private practice that had been struggling, at least in the past. In 1822 he had asked his wealthy cousin, James C. Johnston, for a “loan” of $100, saying legal work was scarce, admitting he’d probably never pay it back. (The request was refused.) Sawyer signed Mann’s bail bond. He also served as surety several months before, when Mann was issued a peace warrant after having allegedly threatened to kill a man.
My theory is that Sawyer took Mann’s case, possibly for free, as one of his last cases before he was elected to the N.C. House of Representatives. The files contain no record of a court appointment—the records are silent altogether on the identity of Mann’s attorney. So it’s only conjecture. If it could be established, I think Mann’s conviction could assume additional weight: not even a member of the venerable Johnston family could convince the jury that John Mann, a poor white with very rough edges, ought to be considered a master “for the time being.” To Jacobs’ story, it would add yet another ironic twist: the suggestion that even while Sawyer was involved with one enslaved woman, he was defending the right of a poor white man to “master” another one at the point of a gun.
At a recent meeting of the Triangle Legal History Seminar, an interesting question arose: what do we know about the attorneys who argued these cases involving slaves? We were talking with Loren Schweninger about the impressive body of cases he has researched, cases involving slaves suing for their own freedom. Often, they were represented by attorneys who were slaveowners themselves. What motivated them? How did their lawyering shape the legal face of slavery? Productive research remains to be done, we concluded.
Whoever he was, John Mann’s attorney handed Thomas Ruffin the theory for a holding that would lie at the heart of the most notorious opinion in all of American slavery law.
1. John Mann's Oath of Insolvency, Chowan County insolvent debtors' files, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh.
2. The site of John Mann's house, at the corner of Broad and Freemason St. in Edenton, is now a dentist's office. Photo: Sally Greene.