Richard B. Alexander v. Moses Graham. Petition for Writ of Error


To the Honorable Chief Justice Taney.

The Petition of Richard B. Alexander humbly represents that at March Term 1840 of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia for the County of Washington, on a petition for freedom filed by Moses Graham against the said Richard B. Alexander, complaining of illegal detention in slavery, judgment was rendered for the said Richard B. Alexander, but not as fully and complete a judgment as ought in law have been rendered in the case, as will more fully appear by a copy of the record and proceedings in the said cause and hereto annexed.

And the said Richard B. Alexander assigns error as follows:

The first fact the Jury find in the special verdict (bearing on the point in error) is, "that Miss Brown sold Milly and her two children to Mrs Alexander she to be free at 31 and her children then born and then afterwards to be born at the same age" They further find that "Miss Brown by her will recognized the terms of sale of each negroes to be that they were to be free at 31 years of age" Upon a reference, however, to the will of Miss Brown (in the transcript of the proceedings) it will be found that the petitioner (Moses Graham) is not mentioned or referred to, is not emancipated by any possibility of construction which the court could with any pretense of reason in by law, give to the instrument.

Now the error assigned by the defendant   is, in the erroneous and most unreasonable application of the law to the above facts.

The law of Virginia 1792 Chap. 103 section 36 (and applicable to this case) provides that slaves shall be emancipated either by last will and testament or by deed recorded in the county or corporation court. Any other method of emancipation is void.

As such is the law, the fact found by the Jury that "Milly" (mother of the Petitioner) "and her children were sold to Mrs Alexander to be free as they should respectively arrive at the age of 31 years" does not amount to such an emancipation as the law requires.

The fact found by the Jury that "Miss Brown by her will recognized the terms of sale of such negroes to be that they were to be free at 31 years of age" is an encroachment on the province of the Court, whose duty it is to decide as to the import and construction of last wills and testaments. It will be found upon a reference to this will that the Petitioner (Moses) is not mentioned in such will, is not referred to by the testatrix, that there is not the remotest implication by which his freedom can be effected

Notwithstanding the said will does not emancipate the Petitioner, and although the law peremptorily[?] requires the emancipation to be by deed or last will and testament, the Court, in total disregard of said law gives to the petitioner his freedom at the age of 31 years.


The error above assigned involves a question of law of extensive interest, both public and private, of a public interest, since it admits the reception of parol evidence to explain and enlarge the meaning of a will, to give to a last will and testament a different meaning from that which the words in themselves evidently and necessarily imply; of a private interest to the defendant, since there are several other slaves, having similar claims, in whose favour similar verdicts would be found, and which verdicts would be construed by the Court, as having a similar legal effect and operation, unless the Supreme Court shall reverse so monstrous erroneous a decision.

Wherefore your petitioner prays that your Honor will issue an order to the Clerk of the said Court directing him to issue a writ of error under the terms and conditions prescribed by law in all such cases, and as in duty bound he will ever pray.

Swann & Swann Attorneys


I have read and considered the within petition of Richard B. Alexander, the Defendant in the within mentioned case. And also the proceedings of the said circuit court therein referred to, and complained of by the petitioner, a copy of which proceedings accompanies this petition, and being of opinion that the errors assigned and [illegible] involve questions of law of such extensive interest and operation, as to render the final decision of them by the Supreme Court desirable, I do hereby direct the clerk of Washington County to issue the writ of error as prayed for, upon the terms & conditions in such cases prescribed by law

R. B. Taney