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Kentucky v. Dennison

A Slave Girl And The Man Who Helped Her

The Kentucky v. Dennison case began when Charlotte, a slave girl who lived in Louisville, Kentucky, was allowed to go with her owner, C. W. Nichols, to visit her mother in Wheeling, Virginia, where Nichols was going on business. (In some parts of the court record, his name is spelled "Nuckols.") The route Nichols chose took him through Cincinnati, in the free state of Ohio. There Charlotte met some abolitionists who helped her escape slavery. They took her to a state court, which ruled that she was free.

Nichols tried to fight the Ohio court's decision. Since slavery was not legal in Ohio, he could not claim that Charlotte was property that had been "stolen." Ironically, he declared that the abolitionists were the ones who had deprived Charlotte of her liberty, which was a crime under Ohio state law.

Meanwhile, Governor Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky demanded that Ohio governor, William Dennison, return a man who was supposed to have helped Charlotte. Dennison had run for office specifically on the platform that he would not allow runaway slaves to be returned South. He had already refused to return one man who had been charged with helping a slave to escape, but when he learned that the man had also stolen jewelry, he changed his mind. In this case, however, he was adamant.

The man whom Dennison refused to return was Willis Lago, a free African American. He had been indicted by a county grand jury for offending "against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth of Kentucky." Dennison argued that the Constitution only required him to return a person accused of treason or felony. Since Lago was guilty of neither treason nor of a felony under Ohio state law, Ohio had no obligation to send him back to Kentucky.

Governor Magoffin was determined to have Lago returned. He wrote back to Dennison, claiming that the framers of the Constitution had in fact intended for fugitive slaves to be sent back. According to Magoffin, "the Constitution was the work of slaveholders . . . their wisdom, moderation, and prudence gave it to us. Non-slaveholding states were the exception, not the rule."

Ohio continued to refuse, so Kentucky tried a new strategy. It petitioned the Supreme Court, asking for a writ of mandamus, which would force the governor to return Lago. The petition was submitted by Thomas B. Monroe, Jr., Kentucky's secretary of state.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Kentucky v. Dennison - Significance, Who Decides?, A Slave Girl And The Man Who Helped Her, On The Eve Of The Civil War