State v. Negro Will (1834) and State v. Manuel (1838)

Written By Jonathan Martin

In the 1820s and 1830s, slavery evolved into a divisive issue in North Carolina. During the Whig Era, blacks were disfranchised after the Constitutional Convention of 1835, but several North Carolina citizens and politicians emerged as voices in the anti-slavery movement. One such citizen was Justice William Gaston, an intellectual leader of North Carolina in the nineteenth century, who penned the opinions in two important slave cases, State v. Negro Will and State v. Manuel.

As the “black codes” of North Carolina were strengthened in the 1830s to prevent slaves from rebelling against their masters, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled favorably for blacks, both slave and free, beginning with State v. Will in 1834. On January 22, 1834, a slave named Will was involved in a disagreement with his master’s slave foreman. When the foreman and an overseer attempted to seize Will, he ran away.  In the process, the foreman shot Will.  When the overseer, a man named Baxter, eventually caught up with Will, the slave fatally stabbed him. As a result, the Edgecombe County Superior Court sentenced Will to death.

Will’s master, James S. Battle, investigated the situation after his slave was sentenced, and he believed that his slave was defending himself. Battle hired two attorneys to represent Will when the case entered appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Remarkably, Battle paid $1,000 in lawyer fees to Bartholomew Moore and George Washington Mordecai.

After the appellant and respondent offered their briefs and oral arguments, the court, with a unanimous decision, reversed the previous court. Justice William Gaston, writing for the three judge court, found that a slave acting in self-defense and kills his overseer cannot be found guilty of first degree murder but of manslaughter. Gaston wrote, “If the passions of the slave be excited into unlawful violence by the inhumanity of a master…is it a conclusion of law that such passion must spring from diabolical malice?” For the first time in North Carolina, slaves had gained the right to defend themselves, at least partly, from their masters.

Several years later, the North Carolina Supreme Court heard State v. Manuel. The facts of the case involved William Manuel, a freed slave, who was found guilty of assaulting a white man in Sampson County. Manuel was fined but he was unable to pay the $20 fine, therefore, the court ordered that he be hired out to pay for his fine.

On appeal, Manuel’s lawyer argued before the state supreme court that citizens–black or white– had the right to enter an insolvency plea. (Insolvency or bankruptcy pleas allowed debtors to find independent work to pay their fines.)  Manuel was not allowed this option to pay his debt. Judge Gaston, speaking on behalf of the entire state supreme court, opined that fact that free blacks were citizens of North Carolina, allowing them protections under the state constitution. In summary, Gaston reasoned that “the defendant had not been allowed to declare insolvency because of the color of his skin.”

After the state’s highest court decided both Will and Manuel in favor of blacks, Judge Gaston was heralded as anti-slavery hero and historians later exclaimed the importance of Will’s “humanity” toward black slaves (Encyclopedia of N.C., p. 1083). In addition, more than a few celebrated Manuel because it chartered the way to the recognition of equality in the law.  Lastly, Gaston’s Manuel opinion was citied by Justice Benjamin Curtis in his dissent in the U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scot decision.