5.1.2. The Midwest, 1780-1820: Key Court Decisions


In Matter of Denison – Michigan Territory, 1807 (unpublished);  State v. Lasselle – Indiana, 1820 (1 Blackford 60)

  • The Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery, but in order to induce the British to evacuate land they ceded at the end of the Revolution, the U.S. agreed in the Jay Treaty (1796) that property rights of existing settlers would be protected.  This raised the question:  did the Treaty protect the rights of settlers who held slaves before 1787?  Denison was the first case in which the issue came before the courts.  Territorial judge Augustus Woodward held that because the U.S. did not effectively control Michigan until the 1796, the Northwest Ordinance had no effect until that time and persons who were slaves at that time remained slaves.
  • A decade later, Indiana’s new supreme court refused to follow Woodward’s lead.  In the 1780s Lasselle, a trader, purchased a slave from an Indian tribe and took her to live in Indiana. She later had a daughter, Polly, whom Lasselle also held as a  slave.  Indiana had prohibited slavery in its state constitution (1816), and the question arose:  could the new state deprive Lasselle of his slaves?  The Indiana justices decided that the state constitution gave Polly her freedom.   The Lasselle case confirmed that Hoosiers would not tolerate slavery in their state, and was a first step along the road to freedom for all Indiana citizens.  


TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS PERIOD, CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW.  YOU CAN ALSO USE THE "SITEMAP" TAB AND THE LINKS ABOVE TO GO TO:

  • OTHER ASPECTS OF MIDWEST LEGAL HISTORY DURING THIS PERIOD
  • OTHER PERIOD OF MIDWEST LEGAL HISTORY
  • THE LEGAL HISTORY OF OTHER REGIONS 

"[Holding that persons who wee slaves in Michigan prior to 1796 remained slaves] brings the existence of slavery in the Territory of Michigan to as early and to as favorable a Close as perhaps the imperfections necessarily attached to all human measures will allow to be expected."

-Judge Augustus Woodward, in Denison


"[I]t cannot be assumed that the constitution ... would guarantee to one part of the community such privileges as would totally defeat and destroy privileges and rights guaranteed to another.  From these premises it follows, as an irresistible conclusion, that ... slavery can have no existence in the State of Indiana."
-Justice James Scott, in Lasselle