Thomas Butler, Sarah Butler, Matilda Butler, Airy Butler, Reason Butler, Sally Butler, Liddy Butler, & Eliza Butler v. Gabriel Duvall

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

Claim for Freedom Made

Importation Violation


Verdict for Petitioner May 19, 1831

Case Documents

Related Documents




Attorney for Plaintiff(s):

Attorney for Defendant(s):



Thomas Butler filed a petition for freedom against U.S. Supreme Court justice Gabriel Duvall on June 2, 1828 on behalf of himself and his wife, four children, and two grandchildren. The petitioners argued that they were "persons of colour who are entitled to their freedom." Members of the Butler family had won several cases in Maryland in the 1790s, although it is unclear if the plaintiffs in this 1828 case were related. Gabriel Duvall maintained that he was officially a resident of Prince George's County, Maryland, and therefore the plaintiffs sued in the wrong jurisdiction and the case in the D.C. court should be dismissed. Duvall's attempt to change the venue indicates that he probably expected a more favorable hearing in his home county. At trial, the case turned on the complication of jurisdiction and the respective Maryland and Virginia acts regarding the sale and importation of slaves. The jury found for the petitioners in May 1831, and a motion for a new trial was overruled. Thomas and Sarah Butler, their four children, and two grandchildren, were free.

Jury Instructions

The central claim of the Butlers centered on their residence three decades earlier when they were sold to Gabriel Duvall in May 1805. Jurisdictional boundaries and the acts on the sale and importation of slaves in D.C. were complex. Gabriel Duvall purchased the Butlers from a barkeeper in Georgetown named John Dales (or Dells), who moved around Virginia and Maryland trying various pursuits. Dales hired out the Butlers to work in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C., and the Butlers gained independence and a degree of freedom even as their status remained unchanged. Because Dales may have sold the Butlers to Duvall in violation of the 1796 Maryland Act, an act that was in force in D.C., the jury had to determine when and under what circumstances the Butlers were sold to Duvall. As a result Butler v. Duvall featured a series of conditional decisions for the jury. If the jury found that Dales moved from Virginia to Washington, D.C., with the Butlers held as slaves and then proceeded to sell them in D.C. within three years of their arrival, then they were imported for the purpose of selling them, a violation of the Maryland Act, and the Butlers were entitled to their freedom. If they were sold to Duvall while he was a resident of D.C. and while Dales lived as a resident in Virginia, they were imported illegally and entitled to their freedom.

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