William Jordan v. Lemuel Sawyer

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


On March 14, 1823, William Jordan petitioned for his freedom against U.S. Representative Lemuel Sawyer of North Carolina. In March 1822, Sawyer purchased Jordan for $325 from a Virginia slaveholder named Valentine Peyton. Peyton brought Jordan into Washington, D.C., but he had no intention to reside in the District. Sawyer immediately put Jordan on a steamboat bound for Norfolk, Va. to "prevent his claiming his freedom." Somehow William Jordan convinced the steamboat captain that he had been illegally sold, and the captain brought him back to Washington, D.C., where he filed his petition for freedom. Sawyer claimed that Jordan was "a lying rascal" and considered him a "run away." The Congressman wrote an angry letter to the steamboat captain claiming that the captain should ignore Jordan's "tales," locate him, take him back to Norfolk, sell him, and deposit the money in a bank under his name. The Circuit Court was split over how narrowly or expansively to interpret the Maryland Act of 1796. The fourth section allowed travelers to bring slaves with them into Washington but did not provide any penalty for selling a slave. Either sojourners had the right to sell slaves in D.C. since it was not specifically barred under the Act's fourth section or sojourners could not do so under the Act's first section. Under that section, no slave could be carried into Washington "for sale or to reside." The jury rendered a special verdict finding that Valentine Peyton was a sojourner or traveller into Washington and that he did not take William Jordan with him when he left. One judge thought that the special verdict indicated that "the law was for the defendant, because the jury had not found that the petitioner was brought in 'for sale or to reside.'" Another disagreed with this opinion, possibly agreeing with Jordan's attorney Francis Scott Key that if Peyton brought Jordan to Washington and sold him there, then Jordan was entitled to his freedom under the Act. Judgment was suspended until the next term, but the case was settled by the parties.

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