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Commonwealth v. Aves: 1836

Slave Or Free?

Name of Respondent: Thomas Aves
Cause of Action: Writ of habeas corpus for a slave girl, Med
Commonwealth Attorneys: Ellis Gray Loring, Rufus Choate, Samuel Sewall
Respondent's Counsel: Benjamin Robbins Curtis, C. P. Curtis
Judge: Lemuel Shaw
Place: Massachusetts
Date of Decision: 1836
Verdict: Med was freed, becoming a ward of the court

SIGNIFICANCE: Shaw's opinion in the Aves case established a precedent in law that slavery was local and liberty general. This precedent was widely appealed to by antislavery forces in their future litigation.

In 1836 New Orleans resident Mary Slater went to visit her father Thomas Aves in Boston, bringing with her a young slave girl about six years of age named Med. While in Boston Slater fell ill, and asked her father to take care of Med until she recovered. During Slater's illness, the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, antislavery sympathizer Levin H. Harris, and others sought a writ of habeas corpus against Aves, asking by what right he was holding Med. Aves answered that he was acting as his daughter's agent. This reply brought the case before the Massachusetts Supreme Court and its famous chief justice, Lemuel Shaw.

What followed turned into a judicial inquiry into slavery's legality in Massachusetts, although at first the question was narrower. While some cases had already held that a slave became free when the master took him or her permanently into a free state, no court had ever addressed the question of a slave who left the slave states temporarily with his or her master. In that regard the Ayes case foreshadowed the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Lawyers for the commonwealth included Ellis Gray Loring, a prominent member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, while Aves was represented by Benjamin Robbins Curtis, who would serve as an associate justice of the Dred Scott Court.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882