Fanny Jackson, Louisa Jackson, Robert Jackson, & Maria Jackson v. Ariss Buckner & Bernard H. Buckner

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

Claim for Freedom Made

Importation Violation


Verdict for Defendant July 8, 1833

Case Documents

Related Documents

Related Cases




Attorney for Plaintiff(s):

Attorney for Defendant(s):



In the summer of 1833, Fanny Jackson was captured, seized, and imprisoned in the D.C. Jail. She had three children with her, Louisa, Robert, and Maria. Her husband was imprisoned also, held in a separate cell. Ariss and Bernard H. Buckner claimed they were runaways. In truth, the Jacksons were planning to sue them for their freedom. They jailed them "under pretense of safe keeping," and by holding them as runaways and acting quickly, the Buckners could possibly sell Fanny and her family before they were able to get the court to intervene. From the confines of her cell on July 17, 1833, Fanny Jackson went ahead with her plan. She sued for her freedom in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. Her case was so prominent that she was portrayed in the famous American Antislavery Society broadside, "Slave Market of America." The woodcut of Fanny Jackson is one of the only images ever produced of an enslaved plaintiff who sued for freedom.

The Jackson family filed five freedom suits against the same pair of slaveholders, Ariss Buckner and his son Bernard H. Buckner: Fanny Jackson and her three children, Henry Jackson, Cassius Jackson, Cyrus Jackson, and Jenny Bill. Two other men, Alexander Brent and Charles Taylor, also sued the Buckners at the same time. Separately, Rachael Brent sued John Armfield, head of one of the largest slave trading firms in the U.S. Ariss Buckner had inherited the Jacksons from his mother, and in 1827, took them across the Virginia line into the District of Columbia. The Jacksons contended that Buckner kept them there in violation of the 1796 Maryland law barring the importation of enslaved people into the state unless by slaveholders who established bona fide residency.

The Buckners asked the court to move the trial to a more sympathetic venue in Alexandria, Virginia, a part of the District of Columbia where the D.C. court had separate sittings. A Virginia jury might be more likely to support their fellow Virginian. And Virginia law, as well as Maryland law, might apply. Buckner asserted that "an impartial trial . . . cannot be had in the County of Washington." Esther, possibly one of Fanny Jackson's relatives, had already sued Bernard H. Buckner and won her freedom at a jury trial in November 1832. Having lost Esther and her children, Buckner in effect claimed that the juries drawn from Washington would not give him, a Virginia slaveholder, a fair hearing. The court granted the change of venue.

Fanny Jackson's case was consolidated with the others under the case of Charles Taylor v. Ariss and Bernard Buckner. At trial in May 1835, Francis Scott Key made substantially the same argument for the Jacksons as he had made in Esther's successful freedom suit three years earlier against Buckner. The judges ruled that the question of whether Buckner was or was not a bona fide resident was "always left open to the jury, as to the intent with which the importation was made." The jury in Alexandria, unsurprisingly, gave Buckner the benefit of the doubt about his residency in D.C., and therefore concluded that he had not violated the importation act after all. Fanny Jackson, her children, and all of the other petitioners were not free.

Coverture and the Slaveholder's Defense

Having successfully moved the trial to the Alexandria court where Virginia law would apply, the Buckners' attorneys Walter Jones and Robert Taylor mounted a three-pronged defense, relying heavily on an 1819 Virginia Act meant to discourage slaveholders from emancipating enslaved people.

First, they argued that the Buckners complied with the Maryland Act of 1796 and had a bona fide intention to settle in the District and claim residency. They introduced two depositions. Alexander Hutchison testified that in the winter of 1829-1830, he negotiated with the Buckners who wanted to rent his farm in Fauquier County. At that time, Hutchison said the Buckners were residents of D.C. Thomas Swann, a prominent banker in the city, issued a loan to Ariss Buckner but only when he satisfied the residency requirement of the bank. Swann testified that when Buckner first applied, he had "not yet brought his family to Washington." After "some weeks," Buckner applied again and met the residency requirement.

The second argument the Buckners' attorneys made was that Ariss Buckner's wife Lucy owned Charles Taylor and the rest of the Jacksons. Because neither Ariss Buckner nor Bernard Bucker was the legal slaveholder, the Jacksons had no right to sue them for freedom under the 1796 act. And because they were not the property of either Buckner, they could not cease to be their property under the act. The attorneys cited the Supreme Court's 1816 ruling in Sally Henry v. Henry Ball in which Chief Justice John Marshall ruled with regard to the Maryland Act of 1796, "The court is also of opinion, that the act contemplates and punishes an importation or bringing into the state by the master or owner of the slave . . . It is apparent, that the legislature had in view the case of a slave brought by the owner, since it is the property of the person importing the slave which is forfeited."

Third, Jones and Taylor argued that the Buckners had complied with Virginia law. The 1819 Virginia revised act stated that anyone granted ownership of slaves as part of a life estate may not remove them from the Commonwealth or grant them freedom unless all those in line to receive property from the estate if the original beneficiary died (the "remainders") consented to the removal. In addition, section 49 held that if a husband held enslaved people under the doctrine of feme covert,—as property his wife had inherited—and he removed them without the consent of all remainders, then the remainders could sue to recover them or the value of each enslaved person. See Benjamin Watkins Leigh, The Revised Code of the Laws of Virginia, Vol. 1 (Richmond: Thomas Richie, 1819) 431-432. The defense argued that Fanny Jackson and her children in particular were the property of Ariss Buckner's wife Lucy, in a life estate from her father Bernard Hooe. She was still living when the Buckners moved to Washington, and they introduced evidence that all seven of her children had consented to the removal of the Jacksons to Washington, D.C., and therefore the importation was legal under Virginia law.

When the justices refused to issue jury instructions to this effect, the defense turned the argument around, asking the judges to issue jury instructions that if the jury believed the Jacksons had been removed from Virginia "without the consent of each of the children," then the Jacksons were not entitled to their freedom under the Maryland act because Ariss and Bernard H. Buckner were, therefore, not legally the owners of the Jacksons. The court refused to issue these jury instructions too, instead leaving it up to the jury to decide the sole determining question of whether and when Buckner intended to be a bona fide resident or not.

Virginia law played no direct role in the outcome of the Jackson freedom suit. But slaveholders had managed to change the venue of the proceedings and use the Virginia sitting of the court to gain much more sympathy from a jury than they would have across the Potomac River in the County of Washington.

What Happened to Fanny Jackson?

We do not know what happened to Fanny Jackson and her children. But it is likely that Bernard H. Buckner took her and the children to Missouri and then to Washington County, Mississippi. Buckner married in 1836 and left Washington, D.C., for St. Louis, Missouri. In 1840, he claimed five enslaved people, including a woman Fanny's age, and two girls and a young man the ages of her children. Ten years later, he enslaved forty-six people in Mississippi.

The Connection to Rachael Brent's Freedom Suit

Brent's freedom suit showed that the Jackson family would have known in October 1832 that they were in danger of being taken out of the city. Esther's suit against Bernard H. Buckner may have been filed earlier, and it is possible that Ariss Buckner took Rachael Brent away and sold her in order to intimidate the Jacksons.