In 1841, three Kentucky slaves in Louisville boarded a steamboat bound for Cincinnati. Within days, they had made their way to Detroit and then to permanent freedom in Canada. Their owner, a prominent central Kentucky businessman, soon tracked them down and tried to lure them back to bondage in the United States. When these efforts failed, he sued the steamboat owners for the value of the lost slaves in a Kentucky court. After ten years of litigation, this case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court’s decision in favor of the Kentucky slaveholder would prove to be an important precedent a few years later when the Court considered the freedom claim of another slave, Dred Scott.
The latter case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, may be the most important decision ever handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Decided in 1857, Dred Scott was only the second time the Court held unconstitutional an Act of Congress, and it was a far more important exercise of this judicial review power than the first in Marbury v. Madison. Dred Scott prompted Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the presidency and was a major cause of the Civil War, the event that drove much of the subsequent United States history. Something like the Civil War may have occurred without Dred Scott, but the timing of the war and many of its particulars were shaped by this decision, as were the key provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, which still define to a great degree what liberty and equality mean in the United States today.
The key issue in Dred Scott—how, if at all, a Negro could obtain his freedom by spending time on free soil—had also been considered by the Court in prior cases. This Article deals with one of these, Strader v. Graham, the case brought by the Kentucky businessman whose slaves escaped on the defendants’ steamboat and the only Kentucky slave case ever to reach the Supreme Court.
In Strader, the Kentucky slave owner, Dr. Christopher Graham, had allowed three of his slaves who were musicians to go to Ohio and Indiana for occasional performances, after which they would return to Kentucky. When the slaves later fled to Canada, making the first part of their journey on a steamboat owned by Strader and other man, Graham sued the boat owners for the monetary value of his lost slaves. One of the defenses was that the slaves had become free as a result of their time in Ohio and Indiana and were therefore no longer Graham’s property at the time of their escape. The Kentucky Court of Appeals—then the state’s highest court—ruled for Graham, holding that the slaves’ brief sojourns to Ohio and Indiana had not changed their status in Kentucky, and the defendants appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In an opinion by Chief Justice Taney, the Court held that it lacked jurisdiction to review the Kentucky court’s ruling because this ruling was based entirely on state law and then went on to declare that, in any event, it agreed with the Kentucky court’s determination that the slaves’ time in Ohio and Indiana had not changed their status. Both rulings—on the jurisdictional point and on the slaves’ status—were later relied on by the Justices in their opinions in Dred Scott.
This Article provides a detailed description of Strader, including its factual background, its reflection of Kentucky slave law in the first half of the nineteenth century, and its significance for Dred Scott and other subsequent slave-related matters. Part I provides an overview of Kentucky slave law as it evolved up to the time of the Strader litigation. Part II describes Strader’s factual background and the Kentucky court decisions it produced. Part III covers Strader in the U.S. Supreme Court. Part IV deals with post-Strader events, including a review of the Dred Scott case and the role that Strader played in that litigation. Part V provides some concluding observations about how the Strader case reflects the role of slavery, law, and lawyers in antebellum Kentucky and what Strader and Dred Scott might teach us in the modern era.