Essay

Edwards v. M’Connel: Hiding Behind Legal Principles

Edwards v. M’Connel[i] is cited by a Tennessee state law treatise on res judicata, the legal principle stating that a prior court’s decision is conclusive on another if it was “between the same parties or their privies.”[ii] Edwards’ importance to legal studies and slavery studies is far-reaching. Edwards is an example of how judges reinforced slavery by presenting their decisions as if they were based on impartial legal principles. At best, judges were using legal formalism to prop up the system of slavery. At worst, they were ignoring reason and evidence to perpetuate slavery. When looking at the Edwards decision, one of two possibilities must be true: the judge ignored evidence proving a young teenager’s freedom, or he was so formalistic about the procedural requirements of the case that he enslaved a free person.

In Edwards, the plaintiff and slave owner, Edwards, brought suit to regain possession of Seac, a teenager he claimed to own. Seac’s defense was that he was free, so he could not belong to Edwards. Seac’s mother, Clarissa, had previously won a case for her freedom against Edwards. The lower court instructed the jury that “Clarissa’s freedom was conclusive evidence to prove that her child, born after the period of her freedom commenced, was free . . . .” The jury found for Seac and pronounced him free. Edwards appealed, arguing that Clarissa’s case was not conclusive on Seac’s claim because Seac was not privy to Clarissa’s claim.

On appeal, Justice Overton[iii] relied on the intersection of res judicata[iv] and slavery laws to create a rule: if a child was born after his or her mother became free, then the child would be privy to the mother’s case finding her free. The mother’s freedom would be conclusive evidence that the child was born free. If Seac was born after Clarissa became free, then Seac would be privy to Clarissa’s case. Clarissa’s case would be conclusive on Seac’s case, and the lower court’s jury instructions would have been correct. Overton found that Clarissa’s case did not indicate when she became free, so it could not be proven that Seac was born after Clarissa gained freedom. Therefore, Seac was not privy to Clarissa’s case, and her case was not conclusive on his claim to freedom. Because of this, Overton reversed the lower court’s finding of Seac’s freedom.

The gaping flaw in Overton’s opinion is that Clarissa’s case did provide proof that she was free prior to Seac’s birth. In Clarissa’s case, she alleged that she was born free. If the court did not find her to be free from birth, she alleged another claim for her freedom. She argued that if she were ever a slave, then she would have been emancipated when the French issued a decree in 1794. The decree freed all slaves on the Island of Guadalupe, where she was living at the time.[v] It is not clear which argument was relied on by the lower court in Clarissa’s case, but it is clear that the court relied on one of these two propositions to find her free. Thus, the court found that Clarissa was either free from birth or from her emancipation in 1794. Seac was born in 1796, so he was born free regardless of which proposition was relied upon in Clarissa’s case. It seems Overton ignored this evidence. He stated that Clarissa’s record did not indicate the date she became free. Overton used a discussion of privity of parties and the role of the judge and the jury to avoid what the evidence revealed: that Seac was free.[vi]

It is possible that Overton was not simply ignoring the evidence presented. He might have been asserting that there was a procedural error in the way Clarissa’s case was decided or relied upon by Seac. The procedural error was preventing Clarissa’s case from indicating a time of freedom and supporting Seac’s defense. Perhaps, Seac’s attorney did not properly plead Clarissa’s case was conclusive on Seac’s case. Another possibility is that the court in Clarissa’s case did not clearly pronounce the time of her freedom. Overton noted that for a mother’s case to be conclusive, it must have been relied upon in the pleadings. Overton discussed a hypothetical to further elucidate his point. He explained that if Seac had been born after the suit brought by Clarissa, then he could have relied on the principle of estoppel and been considered privy to Clarissa’s case. It is possible that this was Overton’s poorly developed way of communicating that there was a procedural error preventing Seac from relying on Clarissa’s case.

If a procedural error was the crux of Overton’s reasoning, then Edwards is an example of the extreme injustice legal formalism can produce. Overton would have been relying on the lower court’s error in drafting the opinion in Clarissa’s case or Seac’s attorney’s mistake in the pleadings to sidestep justice and enslave a free teenager. Seac’s attorney’s mistake or the lower court’s mistake would have potentially enslaved[vii] a person despite overwhelming evidence of their freedom.

Overton’s decision hinged on the reasoning that Clarissa’s record did not show when she became free. This omission meant that there was no privity between Seac and Clarissa. Such reasoning is confusing because the evidence did indicate a time of freedom for Clarissa. It also proved that Seac was born after Clarissa became free. Yet, Overton refused to acknowledge this in his opinion. While there are many questions left open, Edwards provides legal scholars with a stark picture of how legal analysis and purportedly unbiased reasoning can be used to produce unjust outcomes. Overton was either hiding behind a complicated legal requirement that was, in fact, met, or he was strictly adhering to legal formalism and procedural requirements to circumvent justice. Either way, Seac suffered tremendously.

 

[i] Edwards v. M’Connel, 3 Tenn. 304 (1813).

[ii] 22 Tenn. Juris. Res Judicata § 11 (2017).

[iii] Overton was the Tennessee Supreme Court Justice who wrote this opinion. It should be noted that I am distantly related to Overton.

[iv] The legal principle of res judicata might not have been fully developed at this time. More research would be necessary to determine where the principle was in its development in 1813.

[v] Clarissa offered several pieces of evidence that she was living in Guadalupe at the time of the decree. She presented her fluency in French, her seamstress skills, and letters written by her husband from twenty years past. This was a considerable amount of evidence for a time when there were no utility bills to prove your residence. Yet, the court dismissed this evidence by saying, “But there was no proof that Clarissa was ever on the Island, except what might be inferred from . . .” the above evidence presented. It is unclear from the opinion if Overton was questioning Clarissa’s freedom, but the above excerpt makes it seem possible.

[vi] If Overton reversed the lower court due to a lack of evidence of Clarissa’s time of freedom, then this case is important to slavery studies for an additional reason. It is verification of how difficult it was to prove you were a free person of color in Tennessee in the early 1800s. The presumption of enslavement was so strong against anyone who appeared to the court more black than white that even reason, evidence, and a prior court’s findings were not enough to overcome it. Seac had an overwhelming amount of proof for the time. He provided a writing where Edwards released Seac because he was free. He also presented a 1794 French decree declaring all slaves on the Island of Guadalupe free. He successfully proved his age of sixteen making his birthdate in 1796. Finally, he provided the record from Clarissa’s case finding her free. Seac relied on Clarissa’s case to prove that he had lived in Guadalupe and that he was born to a free woman.

[vii] Seac’s case might not have been completely lost. Overton reversed the case based on an error in the jury instructions. It is possible that the case was retried with jury instructions of which the Tennessee Supreme Court would approve. However, even if Seac received a new trial, he would have faced more challenges like paying an attorney and convincing a new jury.