De Witt C. (De Witt Clinton) Peters.

Slavery, or involuntary servitude: does it legally exist in the state of New York? Points on argument in Court of appeals. Opinions in Court of appeals online

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Online LibraryDe Witt C. (De Witt Clinton) PetersSlavery, or involuntary servitude: does it legally exist in the state of New York? Points on argument in Court of appeals. Opinions in Court of appeals → online text (page 1 of 8)
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To Martiuus Lansing, William Heidorn, William Witbeck, David
Reczor, John N. Smith, Albert Slingerland, John Ried, Nicholas
Hoi:k, Lawrence Fenner, Peter Ball, Denison Fish, Thomas B.
Peine, Jacob White, Louis AHendorph, John D. Wood, DeWitt
C. Thomas, William Carmichael, and others.
Gentlenlkn ;

Having been employed by you to resist demands of rent made by
parties who have falsely assumed to be your landlords, we take this
mode of Addressing you upon that subject. We trust we have an excuse,
if an excuse be necessary, in the importance of the questions involvedt
and the fact that so great a number are directly interested, and re-
side so remote from each other, that it would be exceedingly incon-
venient, if not impracticable, to communicate personally, or address
you individually.

The immediate occasion for allowing you opportunity of informa-
tion , arises from the latest decisions of the Courts. Copies of the opin-
ions are annexed. But to read them understanding^, you should take
a brief retrospect of the past. To aid you in that respect, we will di-
rect your attention to some of the more prominent aspects which the
subject has been made to assume, and the remarkable mutations which
have attended its progress.

The practical question forced upon you, was, whether you were per-
sons held ft service according to the laws of this State, and liable to for-
feiture of your property for refusing to serve.

So far the question is personal to yourselves, and comparatively
unimportant to the public. But as there are no facts or circumstan-
ces pressing upon you, except such as are common to great numbers
of men, aud capable of extension so as to embrace every owner of land
in the state, there are great public questions involved, namely; wheth-
er we have, in this State, an institution of servitude ; and, if so,
whether it is a relic of the past soon to wear out, or a thing just be-
gining life and vigor, fitted to grow and expand to an indefinite ex-
tent ; whether it came from the feudal contrivances used for the op-
pression of labor in the Old World or is one of our own : and, if
the latter, by what malign influences it was generated and nourish-
ed, and is now sustained in the midst of our free institutions.

The first inquiry is, whether wo have an institution of servitude
now existing in the State. This must be answered in the affirmative,
if the opinions referred to contain the law of the State, or are to be
adopted a-j the law of the State. If such be the law. we not only have
siuli an institution, but it is a thin^ capable of extension and expansion
without limit. The service, in these cases, was a single day in the
year, but the principle would just as well sustain a claim for every
day in the year : The money or things in kind provided for, are
comparatively small in amount. But, by the same rule, if the own-
er of lands should covenant to serve three hundred and sixty-five
days in the year, or should covenant to pay as a tribute, all he could
raise, or by any means acquire, and should covenant for his heirs and
assgins, every succeeding owner of the same lands, would be liable to
perform the covenant. The covenantor might except himself from
the obligations of his covenants, by fixing the time they were to be-
gin. It is easy to perceive, that by adopting a rule which allows one
man to bind another, and one generation of men to bind all other
generations, you have an institution of servitude likely to take to
itself giant proportions.

The second inquiry relates to the assumed origin of the institution.

The facts relied upon, stated in a general manner, are as follows ;
Some seventy years ago, certain contracts were made by men, of
course, long since dead, and with whom the defendants had neither re-
lation nor connection. Those contracts were, in form and elTect,
conveyances in fee from the one party, with an agreement by the oth-
er, to perform a day's service, and deliver an annual tribute of wheat
and hens as the price or consideration of the conveyance. The lan-
guage of the covenants embraced the heirs and assigns. The defend-
ants, fifty years or more after, became owners of the same lands.

Those are the facts upon which you arc held to service, and upon
which the Courts assume to establish an institution of servitude.

The subject, in its servile phase, is of modern date, in this State.
The parties who made the contracts, fulfiled them as they did other
personal undertakings. Whether they attached to the lands as obliga-
tions on their successors in ownership, was a question which could
not, and did not arise while they were owners, and was consequent-
ly postponed until a later period. It is not much, if any, over a quar-
ter of a century, since the servile aspect of these contracts began to
be pressed upon the attention of the people. It naturally produced
excitement and resentment amongst those upon whom it was claimed
to fall. They had been educated as freemen in a State which boasted
of its free institutions. To submit peaceably, or even passively, to
such servile exactions, appeared to them self-degradation.

Great effort was made, by interested parties, to create in the public
mind the impression that the repugnance manifested was the result of
bad faith and a general disposition to repudiate honest debts, and de-
fraud honest creditors. A more unfounded slander was never at-
tempted. The frauds and bankruptcies which have sometimes
reduced competence to want, and made paupers of the widows and
the fatherless, have not sprung from that source.

There were extraneous considerations which deepened the resent-

merit of the people. Such obligations could not have been imposed
in England. There was a statute existing there as early as 1290,
which made them impossible. It was claimed that the people of this
State, in their general adoption of English laws, had omitted that
statute ; and the omission was credited to the influence of the large

While the.system was denounced by men prominent in authority, by
governors and by the legislature, as inconsistent with the genius of
our government and prejudicial to the public welfare, active measures
were put in operation to rid the state of the admitted evil. But be-
fore they were brought to a final result, the subject came before the
Court of Appeals, and that court unanimously decided that the Eng-
lish statute of 1290 making the creation of feudal servitude an im-
possibility, had been embodied in our act concerning tenures passed
in 1787; that it "put an end to all feudal tenure between one citizen
and another, and substituted in its place a tenure betweeu each land-
holder and the people in their sovereign capacity ;*' and " placed the
law of this state, in respect to the question in controversy, on the
same footing on which the law of England now stands and has stood
since the reign of Edward the First.'' (2 Selden, 504-5).

Thus in about a dozen years after the contest began, it was finally
decided that feudal tenures, and of course, feudal servitude, did not
and could not exist in the state, by conveyances in fee made since
July 4, 1776. / On a subsequent occasion, the same court reiterated
the same decision, and extended it so as to embrace the colonial pe-
riod alike with the state. (19 N. Y. 76).

The decision of that point put an end to all such claims, so far as
the laws of the state were concerned. This was conceded by coun-
sel of the claimants. They never have, personally or by counsel,
contended that they could enforce their demands against third parties
upon any other theory than that of feudal tenures. That theory was
pronounced by the court untenable; and it follows, that if we have
an institution of servitude, by which defendants in such cases can be
held legally liable, it has sprung from other than a feudal source.

The next epoch of the subject began in 1858. The claimants hav-
ing sold and :issigned in fee, had no lands and no estate in lands.
The law was so clearly settled against them, that no lawyer off the
bench could design a theory which he dare put forth as ;in advocate
in their favor. They were more fortunate in finding an advocate on
the bench. By that means, the Supreme Court of the third judicial
district, wag induced to direct its energies to uphold the system from
the crushing effects of the decision of 1852. They could find nothing
in the common law to help ; nothing in the laws of any state or na-
tion, except our own. So they proclaimed. (See 27 Barb., 164),

Chapter 98 of the laws of 1805 — passed years after the contracts
sued upon were made — was the particular act selected.

The selection and application of that act, were extraordinary ; but
the manner of making it work out the result, was more extraordi-
nary than the application itself. We giee that part of their labors
in their own language: " Applying an act, enabling grantees of re-
versions to hold certain rights and enforce certain remedies, by reason
of being assignees of reversions, it, of necessity, makes the lessor's

interest in such a lease, — as well in his own hands, as in those of
his assignees, pro hac vice equivalent to a reversion.'' And "being
subsequent (as was the act it amended | to the law concerning tenures,
it is, it, and so tar as, repugnant to that law, a repealing act, even
without the express trords, ' any law,' &c." (27 Barb. 152).

The plain meaning of this is, that the contracts sued upon were,
when made, assignments, by force of the express provisions of the
statute concerning tenures; that subsequently, and by the retroaction
of the statute of 1803, the assignments were changed to leases.

Had the statute clearly expressed such an intention, no one will
deny, but that it would have been a flagrant attempt, on the part of
the legislature, to exercise an extraordinary power; no less than
making contracts to differ in meaning and effect from what the parties
had made them. Of course, if the legislature could change an assign-
ment into a lease, they could change

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Online LibraryDe Witt C. (De Witt Clinton) PetersSlavery, or involuntary servitude: does it legally exist in the state of New York? Points on argument in Court of appeals. Opinions in Court of appeals → online text (page 1 of 8)