Strader v. Graham Lays Foundation for Dred Scott DecisionHistorical
In Strader v. Graham, 51 U.S. 82 (1851), the U.S. Supreme Court held that it had no jurisdiction to determine whether slaves whose master allowed them to occasionally travel from Kentucky into Ohio acquired a right to freedom. Nonetheless, the justices agreed with the Kentucky Court of Appeals that time in a free state did not grant their freedom. When the Court officially reached the issue in Dred Scott v. Sandford, it relied heavily on its prior decision in Strader.
The Facts of the Case
Dr. Christopher Graham occasionally permitted three of his slaves to travel from Kentucky to Ohio and Indiana for music performances. During one trip, the slaves escaped to Canada, traveling on a steamboat owned by owned by Jacob Strader. Graham sued Strader and the other owner of the boat to recover damages for the loss of his slaves. In defending the suit, Strader argued that slaves gained their freedom by spending time in Ohio and Indiana and were no longer slaves when they fled. The Kentucky Court of Appeals sided with Graham, ruling that the brief trips to free states did not alter their status in Kentucky.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
According to the Court, it has no jurisdiction to decide “whether slaves who had been permitted by their master to pass occasionally from Kentucky into Ohio acquired thereby a right to freedom after their return to Kentucky?” Chief Justice Taney authored the Court’s opinion.
The Court first held that the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, which prohibited slavery, did not confer jurisdiction because it ceased to be in force after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. As Chief Justice Taney explained, “The Ordinance of 1787 cannot confer jurisdiction upon this Court. It was itself superseded by the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, which placed all the states of the Union upon a perfect equality, which they would not be if the Ordinance continued to be in force after its adoption.”
While the Court did not technically reach the heart of the case, it did uphold the Kentucky court’s ruling. “The laws of Kentucky alone could decide upon the domestic and social condition of the persons domiciled within its territory, except so far as the powers of the states in this respect are restrained or duties and obligations imposed upon them by the Constitution of the United States,” the Court held. “There is nothing in the Constitution of the United States that can in any degree control the law of Kentucky upon this subject.”
The Court’s decision went on to form the basis for its more famous ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford. In that case, the Court held that blacks were not American citizens and, therefore, not entitled to sue in federal court.
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