Sally Henry v. Henry W. Ball

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 Defendant July 1814

Judgment Affirmed February 1816

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Attorney for Plaintiff(s):

Attorney for Defendant(s):



William Henry, Sally's father, filed a petition for freedom in Washington, D.C., against Henry Ball, who held Sally in slavery. Sally was "a child," but Ball had rented her out to a woman in Virginia—Mrs. Rankin—whose husband served in the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed in Washington at the Marine Corp Barracks. She brought Sally with her to D.C. and kept her there for about seven or eight months. Then in October 1810, Ball married and took Sally back into his household in Virginia. Ball subsequently moved into Washington, D.C., where William Henry, Sally's father, filed his petition. The D.C. Circuit Court trial resulted in a verdict for the defendant, Henry Ball. Francis Scott Key filed a writ of error and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in February 1816. The Court upheld the lower court's decision denying Henry's petition.

Hiring Out

Francis Scott Key's central argument on behalf of Sally was that Ball knew she would be imported into Washington, D.C., by Rankin, and that this importation violated the provisions of the 1796 Maryland Act. Key argued that the jury should be instructed "that if they believed, from the evidence, that the defendant knew of the intended importation of the petitioner by Mrs. Rankin, and did not object to it, then such importation entitled the petitioner to her freedom." In effect, Key maintained that the 1796 act allowed importation only by bona fide owners, not renters, who intended to settle in the state. Such a construction of the 1796 would have further constricted the movement and importation of enslaved people into Maryland and Washington, D.C., effectively eliminating hirers of slaves as bona fide settlers. The D.C. Circuit Court did not allow this jury instruction and the Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

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