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HOME > Biographical > Harriet Beecher Stowe > CHAPTER VIII. THE GOOD OLD TIMES.
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“A refinement in humanity of doubtful policy.”
B. F. Hunt.

The author takes no pleasure in presenting to her readers the shocking details of the following case. But it seems necessary to exhibit what were the actual workings of the ancient law of South Carolina, which has been characterized as one “conformed to the policy, and approved by the wisdom,” of the fathers of that state, and the reform of which has been called “a refinement in humanity of doubtful policy.”

It is well, also, to add the charge of Judge Wilds, partly for its intrinsic literary merit, and the nobleness of its sentiments, but principally because it exhibits such a contrast as could scarcely be found elsewhere, between the judge’s high and indignant sense of justice, and the shameful impotence and imbecility of the laws under which he acted.

The case was brought to the author’s knowledge by a letter from a gentleman of Pennsylvania, from which the following is an extract:

Some time between the years 1807 and 1810, there was lying in the harbor of Charleston a ship commanded by a man named Slater. His crew were slaves: one of them committed some offence, not specified in the narrative. The captain ordered him to be bound and laid upon the deck; and there, in the harbor of Charleston, in the broad daylight, compelled another slave-sailor to chop off his head. The affair was public—notorious. A prosecution was commenced against him; the offence was proved beyond all doubt,—perhaps, indeed, it was not denied,—and the judge, in a most eloquent charge or rebuke of the defendant, expressed his sincere regret that he could inflict no punishment, under the laws of the state.

I was studying law when the case was published in “Hall’s American Law Journal, vol. I.” I have not seen the book for twenty-five or thirty years. I may be in error as to names, &c., but while I have life and my senses the facts of the case cannot be forgotten.

The following is the “charge” alluded to in the above letter. It was pronounced by the Honorable Judge Wilds, of South Carolina, and is copied from Hall’s Law Journal, I. 67.

John Slater! You have been convicted by a jury of your country of the wilful murder of your own slave; and I am sorry to say, the short, impressive, uncontradicted testimony, on which that conviction was founded, leaves but too little room to doubt its propriety.

The annals of human depravity might be safely challenged for a parallel to this unfeeling, bloody and diabolical transaction.

You caused your unoffending, unresisting slave to be bound hand and foot, and, by a refinement in cruelty, compelled his companion, perhaps the friend of his heart, to chop his head with an axe, and to cast his body, yet convulsing with the agonies of death, into the water! And this deed you dared to perpetrate in the very harbor of Charleston, within a few yards of the shore, unblushingly, in the face of open day. Had your murderous arm been raised against your equals, whom the laws of self-defence and the more efficacious law of the land unite to protect, your crimes would not have been without precedent, and would have seemed less horrid. Your personal risk would at least have proved, that though a murderer, you were not a coward. But you too well knew that this unfortunate man, whom chance had subjected to your caprice, had not, like yourself, chartered to him by the laws of the land the sacred rights of nature; and that a stern, but necessary policy, had disarmed him of the rights of self-defence. Too well you knew that to you alone he could look for protection; and that your arm alone could shield him from oppression, or avenge his wrongs; yet, that arm you cruelly stretched out for his destruction.

The counsel, who generously volunteered his services in your behalf, shocked at the enormity of your offence, endeavored to find a refuge, as well for his own feelings as for those of all who heard your trial, in a derangement of your intellect. Several witnesses were examined to establish this fact; but the result of their testimony, it is apprehended, was as little satisfactory to his mind, as to those of the jury to whom it was addressed. I sincerely wish this defence had proved successful, not from any desire to save you from the punishment which awaits you, and which you so richly merit, but from the desire of saving my country from the foul reproach of having in its bosom so great a monster.

From the peculiar situation of this country, our fathers felt themselves justified in subjecting to a very slight punishment him who murders a slave. Whether the present state of society require a continuation of this policy, so opposite to the apparent rights of humanity, it remains for a subsequent legislature to decide. Their attention would ere this have been directed to this subject, but, for the honor of human nature, such hardened sinners as yourself are rarely found, to disturb the repose of society. The grand jury of this district, deeply impressed with your daring outrage against the laws both of God and man, have made a very strong expression of their feelings on the subject to the legislature; and, from the wisdom and justice of that body, the friends of humanity may confidently hope soon to see this blackest in the catalogue of human crimes pursued by appropriate punishment.

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