Austin L. Adams & Ann C. Harding v. Julia Roberts. Petition for Writ of Error


To the Honorable Roger B. Taney Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

The petition of Austin L. Adams and Ann C. Harding respectfully shews to your Honor that at the May Term 1842 of the Circuit Court for Alexandria County in the District of Columbia in a suit for freedom brought against your petitioners by a woman of color named Julia Roberts, who before that time had always been held, owned, & possessed by your petitioners as a slave, judgment was rendered by the Court on the verdict of a that the plaintiff on the verdict of a jury in favor of the plaintiff, that the plaintiff recover her freedom with costs.

Your Petitioners further shew to your Honor that in the process of the said trial in the Circuit Court, the plaintiff asked instructions to the jury which were refused by the Court to which refusals two bills of exception were taken, and are now which were sealed & enrolled and copies of which are set out in the transcript of the record of proceedings in said suit which accompanies this petition in conformity to law. Your Petitioners say that there was manifest error in the said refusals, and that the error contained in the the refusal of the first prayer to which exception is taken by the first bill of exceptions "involves a question of law of such extensive interest and operation as to render the final decision of it by the Supreme Court of the United States desirable", said Supreme Court being the only appellate tribunal in the last resort for suitors in the District of Columbia and your petitioners shew by the annexed affidavit that the value of said Julia Roberts is over $100. Your Petitioners will name but one fact in this connexion[?] to shew the extensive bearing of the error complained of in the present case, which is, that there are nine other negroes owned & possessed by your Petitioners whose freedom or slavery depends on this identical question, and who, your petitioners believe, are only awaiting the ultimate decision of the present case to guide them in proceeding or not agst your petitioners for their freedom. Your petitioners will only add further that the Circuit Court in the decision   (which is on the construction of a Statute of Virginia adopted by Act of Congress as the law of Alexandria County) have run directly counter to a long settled construction of that statute by the Court of Appeals of Virginia, and to an uninterrupted current of Virginia decisions contained thro' the last forty years.

The error complained of is the following. Simon Summers Somers, thro' whom the petitioners claim, being a resident of Alexandria County in the District of Columbia by deed dated December 30, 1801 emancipated certain slaves and among them Sarah (the mother of Julia Roberts) to be free 1 Jany 1814, and all the children born of Sarah to be free at the age of 25 years (Julia Roberts at the time of suit brought being over 25 years). This deed of emancipation was not proved and recorded in Alexandria County, but on the 18th. day of January, 1802 was acknowledged by Simon Summers Somers before the Court of Fairfax County in Virginia, and was recorded among the records of said Court.

Upon this deed Julia Roberts relied to establish her right to freedom. The prayer of the defendants to exclude this deed from the jury was overruled and the deed admitted to go to the jury as evidence of her right to freedom; and this is the error complained of in the present petition to your Honor, as being of such extensive interest as to render the final decision of it by the Supreme Court desirable.

The Statute of Virginia in force in Alexandria County on which this prayer of the defendants was based is the 36th section of the act of the general assembly of Va. passed the 17th December, 1792 entitled "an act to reduce into one several acts concerning slaves, free negroes, and mulattoes."

§36 will be found at page 191 of Pleasants' edition of the laws of Virginia published in 1803, and is in the   following words:

"It shall be lawful for any person by his or her last will and testament, or by any other instrument in writing, under his or her hand and seal, attested and proved in the County or Corporation Court by two witnesses, or acknowledged by the party in the Court of the County where he or she resides, to emancipate and set free his or her slaves, or any of them, who shall thereupon be entirely & fully discharged from the performance of any contract entered into during servitude, and enjoy as full freedom as if they had been particularly named and freed by this act."

This is the only law in Virginia & Alexa. County relating to the power of the owner to manumit his slaves, and it is proper here to remark that there is no law in Virginia or Alexa. County giving a power of manumission to non residents owing slaves in that state, but that the whole spirit and policy of the laws and judicial decisions of the state are in opposition to such right.

Your Petitioners pray of your Honor to grant them an order to the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Alexandria County, in conformity to law, empowering and requiring the said clerk to issue a writ of error at the suit of your petitioners to the next Term of the Supreme Court of the United States. And a citation &c as is proper in such cases And your petitioners will ever pray &c.

Austin L. Adams
Mosby C Adams
Ann C. Harding
by Th: Semmes their attorney.
Sep. 22. 1842

District of Maryland October 12. 1842

Ordered that a writ of Error be issued according to the prayer of the aforegoing petition.
R. B. Taney


To Cassius F. Lee clerk of the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia for the County of Alexandria.


Austin L. Adams & Ann C. Harding
Julia Roberts

Petition for Writ of Error.

Affidavit enclosed.