James Ash v. William H. Williams

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

Claim for Freedom Made

Property Dispute


Verdict for Petitioner March 1840

Appealed by Defendant May 14, 1840

Verdict for Petitioner April 29, 1840

Judgment Affirmed January 1843

Case Documents

Related Documents

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Attorney for Plaintiff(s):

Attorney for Defendant(s):



On December 19, 1839, James Ash filed a petition for freedom in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia stating that he was "entitled to his freedom" and that he had a petition for his freedom pending in the county court of Prince George's County, Maryland. Ash had been arrested by John Grimes in Washington, D.C., and held in the private jail of William H. Williams. At a trial in March 1840, the jury rendered a verdict for James Ash and ordered his immediate release from Williams' jail. Williams appealed the case on a writ of error to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ash's freedom derived from the will of Maria Anne T. Greenfield who bequeathed her property, including James Ash, to her nephew Gerard T. Greenfield with the proviso: "provided he shall not carry them out of the state of Maryland, or sell them to anyone; in either of which events I will and devise the said negroes to be free for life." Gerard Greenfield sold Ash to William H. Williams and at that moment, the terms of the will "took effect the moment he was sold." Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the majority opinion for the Court, affirming the judgment of the Circuit Court. "The bequest of freedom to a slave is a specific legacy," Taney argued, and the restriction imposed in the will "was not a restraint or alienation inconsistent with the right to the property."

Definitions of Property

This case raised the question of whether a slave, as property, could receive a bequest of freedom, and therefore whether slaves were property or "human beings."

The defendant slaveholder argued that "Negroes, by the laws of Maryland, are property precisely as money in the funds, or household effects." In his argument to the Supreme Court, the defendant's attorney cited Mima Queen v. Hepburn, and asked, "How shall the court decide in favour of the freedom of the slave, without at the same time, and in the same judgment, deciding the right of property, as claimed?" The suggestion that Queen v. Hepburn defined slaves as property ignored many specifics of the case and the procedural rule of hearsay it relied upon.

According to Williams' attorney, the implications of the bequest of freedom led to a "repugnant conclusion." The bequest could not "take effect" without at the same time denying the master "control over the negroes which he is by law entitled to exercise over them, and which he might exercise over any other property in like circumstances, without subjecting himself to forfeiture."

On the other hand, the attorney for James Ash argued primarily that "this is a will." The overriding consideration in the law of wills was the intent of the testator or testatrix. In this case, Maria Anne T. Greenfield "meant to give the slaves a higher and nobler bequest" and she expressed her will with "clear intent." Ash's attorney argued furthermore that "a question of freedom is superior to any question of property" and that the "laws of personal property are not applicable." Instead, under the laws of Maryland, slaves were "regarded as responsible and intellectual beings, as 'persons' capable of contracting." In this respect, the law treated slaves as "human beings." Ash's attorney presented the Supreme Court with the fundamental nature of the contradiction: "Can property take property? Can property be entitled to a trial by jury, or commit a crime, or acquire a right? Yet all this may be done by a negro; and they all imply a reasoning faculty, a conscience, an immortal spirit, in which there can be no property."

Taney's decision did little to resolve the question of whether slaves were property at law or human beings. Instead, Taney side-stepped the contradiction with a clever and useful analogy. A bequest of freedom to a slave was no different, he argued, than a bequest to a third person; in both instances the restriction on the right of property ceases as soon as the contingency in the will is fulfilled. According to Taney, in the case of James Ash, whatever legal rights of property inhered in his body, they disappeared the moment the will's conditions were effected by his sale. As if by magic, "there is nothing to alien."

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