Sarah Ann Allen, Eliza Jane Alle, Julia Maria Allen & John Davy Allen v. Joseph Wallingsford

United States. Supreme Court - Washington (D.C.)
United States. Circuit Court (District of Columbia) - Washington (D.C.)

Claim for Freedom Made

Manumission
Property Dispute

Outcome

Verdict for Plaintiff June 3, 1835

Judgment Affirmed January 1836

Case Documents

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Case Narrative

Sarah Ann Allen petitioned for her freedom on behalf of herself and three children against Joseph Wallingsford. Rachel Wallingsford filed for divorce from Joseph Wallingsford. Before the divorce had been finalized, Joseph agreed to send Sarah Ann Allen to Rachel. Rachel manumitted Allen and for some period of time, Allen lived in freedom independently of Rachel Wallingsford. Allen had three children during this time. But after Rachel died, Joseph Wallingsford claimed both Sarah Ann Allen and her children as his slaves, arguing that their deed of manumission was invalid and that they remained his property. Wallingsford contended that women could not accept property independently and that Rachel executed the deed of manumission before the divorce was finalized. The Court allowed the deed of manumission to be admitted into evidence, however, and the jury found for the petitioners. The defendant slaveholder, Joseph Wallingsford, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that several instructions to the jury should have been allowed indicating that without the intervention of a trustee, the agreement to give Sarah Ann Allen to Rachel as property in alimony was void. He also argued that under Maryland law, slaves who would become a burden to society could not be manumitted, and that the Allen infants fit this barred category. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld and affirmed the lower court judgment. The Allens were free. The Court concluded in its majority opinion: "It would be an unreasonable restraint upon the privileges of manumission, as it is granted in this act, if it were interpreted to exclude the manumission of mother and an infant child, the former being of healthy constitution and able to maintain it."

Commentary

Women's Property

Much of this case turned on Joseph Wallingsford's claim that Rachel Wallingsford could not have manumitted Sarah Ann Allen because as a married woman, she was unable to hold and convey property without his consent. The Supreme Court held that under equity law, there were numerous exceptions under specific conditions: such as when the property will be applied to the separate use of the wife, where the wife provides a consideration in exchange to the husband for the property, and where the husband makes a gift to "distinctly" separate it from "the mass of his property." The Court decided in this case that a transfer of property did occur, and that it was exchanged for a "valuable consideration," essentially in lieu of alimony. The Court concluded: "In regard to that property, Mrs. Wallingsford is to be considered as a feme sole; and her right to dispose of it followed as a matter of course." In this petition for freedom case, the deciding question became the legal capacity of slaveholding women to control and own enslaved property.