Ben v. Sabret Scott

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

Claim for Freedom Made

Importation Violation


Verdict for Petitioner June 19, 1807

Judgment Reversed February 1810

Remanded for New Trial April 13, 1810

Verdict for Petitioner June 14, 1811

Case Documents

Related Documents




Attorney for Plaintiff(s):

Attorney for Defendant(s):



Ben was a "mariner" held in slavery by Sabret Scott, a ship owner and merchant trader based in Washington, D.C., with extensive ties to the West Indies. Francis Scott Key represented Ben in his petition for freedom against Sabret Scott. Key filed the petition in September 1806 and argued that Ben "a man of colour" was sold and brought into Maryland in violation of the 1796 Maryland Act banning the importation of slaves into the state. Ben won his case at trial on June 19, 1807, and he was declared free. The defendant filed a writ of error and supersedeas to delay the judgment. But apparently the writ of error was never sent to the plaintiff. Taking his freedom, Ben left Sabret Scott. Then, sometime in early 1808, Scott claimed Ben was a runaway slave and had Ben arrested and held in the D.C. jail. Francis Scott Key filed a writ of habeas corpus in June 1809 and argued that because the defendants had not provided a copy of the writ of error Ben was free and could not be held. In December 1808, the D.C. Circuit Court could not reach a decision on the matter and kept Ben imprisoned. Finally, in the June 1809 term, the Court discharged Ben, finding that the defendant did not file a proper writ of error and provide a copy for the adverse party. The defendant's writ of error went to the Supreme Court of the United States in February 1810, and the Supreme Court overturned the D.C. Circuit Court and ordered a new trial. The case came back to trial in the D.C. Circuit Court in January 1811, nearly five years after Ben filed his petition for freedom.


A supersedeas is a defendant's appeal bond that a court requires from an appellant who wants to delay the payment of a judgment until the appeal is complete. William Blackstone, in Commentaries Vol. 3, notes that "before granting any appeal, writ of error, or supersedeas, the appellant must enter into bond with security to pay the amount of the debt, and all costs and damages . . . in case the judgment be affirmed." (409) In this case, Sabret Scott and George W. Riggs put up the surety bond of $1,000 paid to Ben. Sabret Scott signed the bond with an "x" indicating that despite his business ties and slaveholding, he was illiterate.

This case summary was written and researched by William G. Thomas III, and edited by project scholars.