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The Foreign slave.

Early in the year of 1808, a Frenchman arrived in Philadelphia from one of the West India Islands, bringing with him a slave, whom he took before one of the aldermen, and had him bound to serve him seven years in Virginia. When the indenture was executed, he committed his bondman to prison, for safe-keeping, until he was ready to leave the city. One of the keepers informed Isaac T. Hopper of the circumstance, and told him the slave was to be carried South the next morning.

Congress had passed an Act prohibiting the importation of slaves, which was to begin to take effect at the commencement of the year 1808. It immediately [161] occurred to Friend Hopper that the present case came within the act; and if so, the colored man was of course legally entitled to freedom. In order to detain him till he could examine the law, and take advice on the subject, he procured a warrant for debt and lodged it at the prison, telling the keeper not to let the colored man go till he had paid his demand of a hundred dollars.

When the Frenchman called for his slave next morning, they refused to discharge him; and he obtained a writ of habeas corpus, to bring the case before the mayor's court. Friend Hopper was informed that the slave was on trial, that the Recorder did not think it necessary to notify him, and had made very severe remarks concerning the fictitious debt assume ed for the occasion. He proceeded directly to the court, which was thronged with people, who watched him with lively curiosity, and made a lane for him to pass through. Mahlon Dickinson, the Recorder, was in the act of giving his decision on the case, and he closed his remarks by saying, ‘The conduct of Mr. Hopper has been highly reprehensible. The man is not his debtor; and the pretence that he was so could have been made for no other reason but to cause unnecessary delay, vexation, and expense.’ The lawyers smiled at each other, and seemed not a little pleased at hearing him so roughly rebuked; for many of them had been more or less annoyed by his [162] skill and ready wit in tangling their skein, in, cases where questions of freedom were involved. Friend Hopper stood before the Recorder, looking him steadfastly in the face, while he was making animadversions on his conduct; and when he had finished, he respectfully asked leave to address the court for a few minutes.

‘Well, Mr. Hopper,’ said the Recorder, ‘what have you to say in justification of your very extraordinary proceedings?’

He replied, ‘It is true the man is not my debtor; but the court has greatly erred in supposing that the step I have taken was merely intended to produce unnecessary delay and expense. The Recorder will doubtless recollect that Congress has passed an act prohibiting the introduction of foreign slaves into this country. It is my belief that the case now before the court is embraced within the provisions of that act. But I needed time to ascertain the point; and I assumed that the man was my debtor merely to detain him until the Act of Congress could be examined.’

Jared Ingersoll, an old and highly respectable lawyer, rose to say, ‘May it please your honors, I believe Mr. Hopper is correct in his opinion. A National Intelligencer containing the Act of Congress is at my office, and I will send for it if you wish.’ The paper was soon brought, and Friend Hopper [163] read aloud the section which Mr. Ingersoll pointed out; placing strong emphasis on such portions as bore upon the case then pending. When he had concluded, he observed, ‘I presume the court must now be convinced that the censures so liberally bestowed on my conduct are altogether unmerited.’

The counsel for the claimant said a newspaper was not legal evidence of the existence of a law. Friend Hopper replied, ‘The court is well aware that I am no lawyer. But I have heard lawyers talk about prima facie evidence; and I should suppose the National Intelligencer amounted at least to that sort of evidence, for it is the acknowledged organ of government, in which the laws are published for the information of citizens. But if that is not satisfactory, I presume the court will detain the man until an authenticated copy of the law can be obtained.’

After some discussion, the court ordered a copy of the law to be procured.; but the attorney abandoned the case, and the slave was set at liberty. As soon as this decision was announced, the throng of spectators, white and colored, began to shout, ‘Hurra for Mr. Hopper!’ The populace were so accustomed to see him come off victorious from such contests, that they began to consider his judgment infallible.

Many years afterward, when Friend Hopper met [164] Mahlon Dickinson on board a steam-boat, he inquired whether he recollected the scolding he gave him on a certain occasion. He replied pleasantly, ‘Indeed I do. I thought I had you that time, and I intended to give it to you; but you slipped through my fingers, as usual.’

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Isaac T. Hopper (10)
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