Clem Joice v. Robert Alexander

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

Claim for Freedom Made

Descent from Free White Woman


Verdict for Defendant January 27, 1809

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Attorney for Plaintiff(s):

Attorney for Defendant(s):



Clem Joice's petition for freedom trial in 1808-1809 in Washington, D.C., capped nearly two decades of litigation brought by the Joice and Mahoney families in Prince George's County, Md. Beginning in 1791, the family filed a series of freedom suits that became some of the most public and significant cases in American history. Many of the participants in Clem Joice's case, including judges, witnesses, and lawyers, had been involved in the earlier litigation. Her trial demonstrated how the legal process could be manipulated to deflect or weaken claims to freedom.

The Mahoney brothers, Charles, Patrick, and Daniel, initiated the family's claim to freedom when they sued Rev. John Ashton in 1791, arguing that they were descended from Ann Joice, a free woman of color whose terms of indenture were violated in the seventeenth century. Their case, Mahoney v. Ashton, was litigated in the General Court of the Western Shore and took twelve years (1791-1802), three jury trials, and two appeals before it was finally over. A May 1799 jury rendered a verdict in favor of Mahoney's freedom, and until the third and final jury trial in 1802, that verdict stood. But in October 1802, the Maryland court ultimately denied the Mahoneys' claim to freedom, based on dubious eyewitness testimony in the deposition of Thomas Lane claiming that Ann Joice was a "Guinea Negro" and therefore a slave.

As the Mahoney case proceeded through the courts, Clem Joice's mother, Eleanor Joice also sued for her freedom. She filed her case against Notley Young in Prince George's County court in 1796, and her claim to freedom was the same as the Mahoneys. Eleanor's attorney did not prosecute her case after the final Mahoney verdict was handed down in October 1802.

Robert Alexander either inherited or purchased Clem Joice from Notley Young or his beneficiaries after Young's death in 1802. In either case, Alexander resided in the District of Columbia, and for Clem Joice, the new jurisdiction of the D.C. court gave her a potentially more favorable forum for her family's claim to freedom. One of the newly appointed D.C. justices, Allen Bowie Duckett from Prince George's County, was forced to recuse himself from her case because he had previously represented Notley Young in the case brought by Clem's mother, Eleanor Joice.

Clem Joice's attorneys included Henry Hiort, who had also taken up the freedom cases of several other Prince George's County families, including the Shorters, the Butlers, and the Browns. Hiort filed at least nine petitions for freedom on behalf of these enslaved families in 1808-1809.

Robert Alexander's attorney was Francis Scott Key, whose uncle Philip Barton Key represented Rev. John Ashton in the Mahoney case. The thirty-year-old Key orchestrated a series of maneuvers that benefited his slaveholding client. First, he removed a potential juror who held anti-slavery opinions. Second, he successfully brought into evidence the deposition of Thomas Lane that had been so decisive in Mahoney v. Ashton. Finally, Key also succeeded in convincing the court to bar the plaintiff's witnesses from sitting in the courtroom, ostensibly so that their testimony would not influence one another. With sympathetic jurors removed, suspicious depositions brought into evidence, and witnesses removed from the courtroom, the case went to trial in January 1809. Unsurprisingly, the jury denied Clem Joice's petition for freedom and rendered a verdict for the defendant.

Voir Dire (Jury Selection)

In the first round of voir dire or jury selection, the attorneys for both sides challenged twenty-three different jurors, striking them from the jury. The large number indicates the complex interrelationships of the early families of Washington, D.C. One potential juror was Nicholas L. Queen, a white man who years later became the proprietor of Queen's Hotel near the Capitol, held ten slaves, and employed over a dozen employees at the hotel. Henry Hiort struck him from the jury and then called him as witness for Clem Joice. Another potential juror, Hezekiah Wood, was simultaneously defending himself in another freedom suit. Joice's attorney Henry Hiort wasted little time striking him from the jury.

One potential juror, Matthew Wright, was dismissed because he did not "stand indifferent" in the case—that is, he either possessed anti-slavery sympathies or supported the Joices in their claim to freedom. The court ruled that Wright could not be put on the stand and examined by the attorneys about his views. Instead, the first two jurors selected were to be the "triers" who would determine whether Wright "stood as a fair, indifferent, unbiased, unprejudiced juror between the parties." They gathered witnesses and heard statements that Wright had said "they had better not summon him on negro causes, for he would free them all." The two jurors decided that Wright was disqualified for this reason. Wright's statement, however, indicated not only the presence of strong anti-slavery opinion in the District but also the willingness of some white men to declare themselves publicly in favor of freedom.

The Thomas Lane Deposition and the Hearsay Rule

During the jury trial in January 1809, when Francis Scott Key attempted to introduce the Thomas Lane deposition as the declaration "of a person now dead," Joice's attorneys immediately objected. As the declaration of a dead person, Lane's statement might be admitted in court as evidence, not hearsay, even though he could not appear. Joice's attorneys, Henry Hiort, Elias B. Caldwell, and James Morsell, countered that the statement was merely a copy, neither signed by Lane nor in his handwriting. Because they wanted to prevent Lane's testimony from being heard but wanted to preserve the use of hearsay generally, Joice's attorneys found themselves in a tricky position. They could not object to the statement as hearsay, for they intended to introduce hearsay evidence too. Instead, they attempted to undermine the credibility of the document. Key argued that the chief justice of the Maryland court "authenticated" a certified copy of the deposition, and it should be admitted into evidence. At this, Chief Judge William Cranch reluctantly admitted the deposition, and it was read in evidence to the jury.

The Lane deposition was possibly fabricated as a means to create an alternate story of the origins of Ann Joice and to persuade the jury in Mahoney v. Ashton that she could only have been a slave imported directly from Africa. Lane testified that Ann Joice was not an indentured black woman who came to Maryland from England with Lord Baltimore but instead a "Guinea Negro" brought as a slave from Africa to Maryland. To shore up his case, Francis Scott Key called his uncle Philip Barton Key to the stand, presumably to testify to the accuracy of the Lane deposition and why he introduced it in the third Mahoney v. Ashton trial in October 1802. Once Lane's statement was admitted into evidence in Clem Joice's trial, the all-white jury faced an unambiguous eyewitness account affirming that her ancestor was enslaved rather than free.

Witness Exclusion

Clem Joice v. Robert Alexander was Francis Scott Key's first freedom suit. As an attorney for the defendant slaveholder, Key managed to persuade the court to keep the plaintiff's witnesses out of the courtroom because, he said, they were "of bad character" and would not testify "fairly" if "permitted to hear each other's testimony." The Chief Judge William Cranch doubted "very much" the propriety of such a practice unless there was evidence of collusion or corruption. But Key pointed to a recent case when the court made a similar order, and Cranch allowed the exclusion of the plaintiff's witnesses from the courtroom.

One reason Key maneuvered their exclusion and Cranch allowed it was that at least four of Joice's witnesses were free blacks freed in earlier cases in the Maryland courts: Jane Shorter, Charles Shorter, Catherine Shorter, and Mary Shorter. The D.C. court had not disallowed free black testimony in freedom suits as Maryland had done beginning in 1793. One of the white witnesses, John Rabbitt testified in the Davis family's petition for freedom. He held ten slaves in 1800 and none in 1810. It is possible that he manumitted them all.

With all but one of the plaintiff's witnesses asked to wait outside of the courtroom, Key effectively called into question the credibility of their testimony.

"A Free White Woman"

Joice's lawyer Elias B. Caldwell asked one of the free black witnesses appearing for her a surprising question, at least given the claims made earlier in the Mahoney and Joice trials in Maryland. Caldwell asked what the "general reputation of the neighborhood" about Ann Joice was and "whether she was a free white woman."

None of the earlier claims asserted that Ann Joice was white. Instead, in Mahoney v. Ashton, the lawyers presumed that Ann Joice was "a negro" who had been carried from the West Indies to London by Lord Baltimore. She had children with free white men, but the claim to freedom in the Mahoney cases was based on the Somerset principle—that she was taken to England, and as a consequence, could be nothing other than free.

Key objected to Caldwell's question on the grounds that evidence about "general reputation" could only be assessed by "free white persons." Presumably, black witnesses could not be asked to give testimony about the reputation of free white persons. The court refused to allow Caldwell's question.

It is entirely possible that Clem Joice and her attorneys decided to change the family's strategy in light of the Mahoney v. Ashton decision and to argue that Ann Joice was not a "Guinea Negro" as Thomas Lane said but instead that she was a free white woman. The D.C. court did not allow into evidence the record of earlier verdicts or court rulings. So Joice's case would be tried on its own evidence and testimony. The Joices's relatively light complexion, whatever the source, might substantiate such a claim in the eyes of the jury. This may be why Joice's attorneys fought so hard to exclude Thomas Lane's statement.

It is also possible that Caldwell asked the question speculatively and that Clem Joice never claimed that Ann Joice was a white woman. Regardless, whether in Prince George's County Court, the General Court of the Western Shore in Annapolis, or the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, the Mahoney and Joice family consistently claimed that Ann Joice was a free person, a claim they asserted in the legal record for over twenty years and at least three generations.

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