Charles Mahoney v. John Ashton

Maryland. General Court of the Western Shore - Annapolis (Md.)
Maryland. Court of Appeals - Annapolis (Md.)

Claim for Freedom Made

Descent from Free Woman


Special Verdict October 1797

Judgment for Petitioner May 1799

Appealed by Defendant May 1799

Judgment Reversed June 25, 1802

Verdict for Defendant October 1802

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Attorney for Plaintiff(s):

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On October 18, 1791, Charles Mahoney filed his petition for freedom in the General Court of the Western Shore in Annapolis, Maryland. His brothers Daniel and Patrick also filed petitions, but their suits would be determined by the outcome of Charles' case. Mahoney based his petition on the claim that he was descended from a free woman named Ann Joice. In later testimony, witnesses described Joice as black, and Mahoney argued that she was an indentured servant, not a slave, when she arrived in the Maryland colony with the third Lord Baltimore. Some witnesses testified that Col. Henry Darnall acquired Joice's indenture from Lord Baltimore, burned her indenture contract, and held Joice and her children in bondage as slaves. The descendants of Ann Joice were passed through the Darnall family to other leading Maryland planters, including Charles Carroll of Carrollton and the Jesuit priests who operated White Marsh plantation in Prince George's County, Maryland, along with several other large plantations on Maryland's western shore. Held as a slave by the Jesuits, Charles Mahoney sued Rev. John Ashton, the manager at White Marsh and the Procurator General of the Jesuit corporation that held the society's properties in trust.

Mahoney v. Ashton took twelve years, three jury trials, and two appeal hearings. Discovery dragged on for six years while each side took depositions and the Maryland court awaited the response of a committee in England that was commissioned to search for evidence in London. The committee was asked to review documents to determine if Joice was listed on a manifest of servants shipped from London to the Maryland colony.

A trial in 1797 led to an inconclusive special verdict, and an appeal for a retrial was granted.

In a second trial in May 1799, the jury found in favor of Charles Mahoney and declared that he was entitled to his freedom. Members of the Mahoney family, including Charles, left the Jesuit plantations after the decision even though Ashton filed an appeal. Some settled in a free black community in Anne Arundel County, while others went north to Baltimore. Ashton was removed from his post as manager of White Marsh in 1801, as Bishop John Carroll sought to take control of the litigation and contain the losses on the Jesuit plantations.

Ashton remained the defendant in this case, however, and his lawyers requested a hearing before the high Court of Appeals to overrule the 1799 jury's decision. The appeal was not heard until June 1802. Mahoney's lawyers argued that under the Somerset principle, Joice's presence in England meant that she was a free person. But they went even further, and held that the presumption of the court should be in favor of freedom. "Slavery is incompatible with every principle of religion and morality," one of his lawyers told the court. "It is unnatural, and contrary to the maxims of political law, more especially in this country, where 'we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal;' and that liberty is an 'inalienable right.'"

Ashton's lawyers responded with a devastating counter-argument: that the Somerset ruling was much more limited in its scope than Mahoney's lawyers indicated, and that even if Joice were free while in England, the situation changed when she departed England. The court agreed with this argument and decided that the master-slave relationship resumed, and her status as a slave may have "reattached" when she left England with Lord Baltimore en route to Maryland.

In June 1802, the High Court of Appeals overturned the May 1799 jury verdict and ordered a new trial.

In October 1802, Ashton's lawyers introduced fresh evidence, so new that it may have been fabricated. Two witnesses stepped forward to claim that after Lord Baltimore's ship departed London, it picked up Joice on the Guinea coast of Africa. Ann Joice, they said, was a "Guinea Negro" who never set foot in England.

Charles Mahoney's claim to freedom was never based on color, yet Ann Joice's blackness determined the final outcome. Setting aside the question of whether Joice set foot in England and what her presence on English soil meant, the jury in 1802 could have presumed that her color determined her status, since a "Guinea Negro" could be nothing other than enslaved. The jury decided that Charles Mahoney was not entitled to his freedom.

But on May 4, 1804, John Ashton took a deed manumitting Patrick Mahoney down to the Charles County courthouse and had it recorded. Patrick was "absolutely free." On the same day, "at the request of Charles Mahoney," Ashton also recorded a deed that "forever set free Charles Mahoney." Mahoney was living in Anne Arundel County, presumably at-large and probably ever since the May 1799 jury verdict in his favor. Ashton agreed to "relinquish and renounce all claim whatever which I have or ever had to him."

The Somerset Principle

Mahoney's attorney Gabriel Duvall hoped to show that Joice had been taken from Barbados to London, and that because she came from London to the colony (not from Africa), she was entitled to her freedom. Duvall considered the landmark Somerset ruling in 1772 directly applicable to the Mahoney case.

Slavery, Lord Mansfield ruled in Somerset v. Stewart, had no basis in "natural law" and was "so odious" that it could only be maintained through "positive law." As such, slavery did not exist in English law, and no person on English soil could be sold as a slave or coerced into slavery. Sir William Blackstone, the leading authority on English law and a professor at the University of Oxford, published his Commentaries on the Laws of England in the 1760s, and in his first edition he laid down the most complete argument to date that slavery was incompatible with free societies. Although he later admitted that slavery might have a legal basis in the colonial plantation societies of the Atlantic World, Blackstone wrote, "pure and proper slavery does not, nay cannot, subsist in England; such I mean, whereby an absolute and unlimited power is given to the master over the life and fortune of the slave. And indeed it is repugnant to reason, and the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist any where."

When Mansfield issued his opinion in Somerset, there were over 14,000 enslaved people in England, mostly temporarily, and mostly held by West Indies plantation owners. Mansfield's decision did not set them free. Instead, his narrow, rather conservative ruling prevented James Somerset from being taken out of England against his will as a slave. Still, Mansfield's language, especially his description of slavery as "odious," raised doubts about the legitimacy of slavery in the law. American courts spent decades parsing the Somerset decision. Conservatives tried to dispel any doubts about slavery's legitimacy. Liberal-minded jurists in favor of freedom considered slavery utterly and irreconcilably incompatible with common law guarantees of individual liberty.

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