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Pierce Butler's Ben.

in August, 1804, a colored man about thirty-six years old waited upon the committee of the Abolition Society, and stated that he was born a slave to Pierce Butler, Esq., of South Carolina, and had [99] always lived in his family. During the last eleven years, he had resided most of the time in Pennsylvania. Mr. Butler now proposed taking him to Georgia; but he was very unwilling to leave his wife, she being in delicate health and needing his support. After mature consideration of the case, the committee, believing Ben was legally entitled to freedom, agreed to apply to Judge Inskeep for a writ of habeas corpus; and Isaac T. Hopper was sent to serve it upon Pierce Butler, Esq., at his house in Chestnutstreet.

Being told that Mr. Butler was at dinner, he said he would wait in the hall until it suited his convenience to attend to him. Mr. Butler was a tall, lordly looking man, somewhat imperious in his manners, as slaveholders are wont to be. When he came into the hall after dinners Friend Hopper gave him a nod of recognition, and said, ‘How art thou, Pierce Butler? I have here a writ of habeas corpus for thy Ben.’

Mr. Butler glanced over the paper, and exclaimed, ‘Get out of my house, you scoundrel!’

Feigning not to hear him, Friend Hopper looked round at the pictures and rich furniture, and said with a smile, ‘Why, thou livest like a nabob here!’

‘Get out of my house, I say!’ repeated Mr. Butler, stamping violently.

‘This paper on the walls is the handsomest I ever [100] saw,’ continued Isaac. ‘Is it French, or English? It surely cannot have been manufactured in this country.’ Talking thus, and looking leisurely about him as he went, he moved deliberately toward the door; the slaveholder railing at him furiously all the while.

‘I am a citizen of South Carolina,’ said he. ‘The laws of Pennsylvania have nothing to do with me. May the devil take all those who come between masters and their slaves; interfering with what is none of their business.’ Supposing that his troublesome guest was deaf, he put his head close to his ear, and roared out his maledictions in stentorian tones.

Friend Hopper appeared unconscious of all this. When he reached the threshold, he turned round and said, ‘Farewell. We shall expect to see thee at Judge Inskeep's.’

This imperturbable manner irritated the hot-blooded slave-holder beyond endurance. He repeated more vociferously than ever, ‘Get out of my house, you scoundrel! If you don't, I'll kick you out.’ The Quaker walked quietly away, as if he didn't hear a word.

At the appointed time, Mr. Butler waited upon the Judge, where he found Friend Hopper in attendance. The sight of him renewed his wrath. He cursed those who interfered with his property; and [101] taking up the Bible, said he was willing to swear upon that book that he would not take fifteen hundred dollars for Ben. Friend Hopper charged him with injustice in wishing to deprive the man of his legal right to freedom. Mr. Butler maintained that he was as benevolent as any other man.

‘Thou benevolent!’ exclaimed Friend Hopper. ‘Why, thou art not even just. Thou hast already sent back into bondage two men, who were legally entitled to freedom by staying in Philadelphia during the term prescribed by law. If thou hadst a proper sense of justice, thou wouldst bring those men back, and let them take the liberty that rightfully belongs to them.’

‘If you were in a different walk of life, I would treat your insult as it deserves,’ replied the haughty Southerner.

‘What dost thou mean by that? asked Isaac. Wouldst thou shoot me, as Burr did Hamilton? I assure thee I should consider it no honor to be killed by a member of Congress; and surely there would be neither honor nor comfort in killing thee; for in thy present state of mind thou art not fit to die.’

Mr. Butler told the judge he believed that man was either deaf or crazy when he served the writ of habeas corpus; for he did not take the slightest notice of anything that was said to him. Judge Inskeep [102] smiled as he answered, ‘You don't know Mr. Hopper as well as we do’

A lawyer was procured for Ben; but Mr. Butler chose to manage his own cause. He maintained that he was only a sojourner in Pennsylvania; that Ben had never resided six months at any one time in that State, except while he was a member of Congress; and in that case, the law allowed him to keep his slave in Pennsylvania as long as he pleased. The case was deemed an important one, and was twice adjourned for further investigation. In the course of the argument, Mr. Butler admitted that he returned from Congress to Philadelphia, with Ben, on the second of January, 1804, and had remained there with him until the writ of habeas corpus was served, on the third of August, the same year. The lawyers gave it as their opinion that Ben's legal right to freedom was too plain to admit of any doubt. They said the law to which Mr. Butler had alluded was made for the convenience of Southern gentlemen, who might need the attendance of their personal slaves, when Congress met in Philadelphia; but since the seat of government was removed, it by no means authorized members to come into Pennsylvania with their slaves, and keep them there as long as they chose. After much debate, the judge gave an order discharging Ben from all restraint, and he walked off rejoicing. [103]

His master was very indignant at the decision, and complained loudly that a Pennsylvania court should presume to discharge a Carolinian slave.

When Ben was set at liberty, he let himself to Isaac W. Morris, then living at his country seat called Cedar Grove, three miles from Philadelphia. Being sent to the city soon after, on some business for his employer, he was attached by the marshall of the United States, on a writ De homine replegiando, at the suit of Mr. Butler, and two thousand dollars were demanded for bail. The idea was probably entertained that so large an amount could not be procured, and thus Ben would again come into his master's possession. But Isaac T. Hopper and Thomas Harrison signed the bail-bond, and Ben was again set at liberty, to await his trial before the Circuit Court of the United States. Bushrod Washington, himself a slaveholder, presided in that court, and Mr. Butler was sanguine that he should succeed in having Judge Inskeep's decision reversed. The case was brought in October, 1806, before Judges Bushrod Washington and Richard Peters. It was ably argued by counsel on both sides. The court discharged Ben, and he enjoyed his liberty thenceforth without interruption.

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