This significant decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court provides a valuable understanding of the Tennessee judiciary’s peculiar relationship with the institution of slavery. The case arose after the death in 1842 of Loyd Ford of Washington County. Ford, a yeoman farmer, owned several slaves whom he regarded with particular affection. He drafted a will that freed the slaves and bequeathed them his real property. Before Ford’s death, his children attempted to force him to destroy the will and even offered money for its destruction to the person holding the document for safekeeping. After Ford’s death, his slaves presented the will to the Washington County courts for probate. The executors of the will, however, appeared and contested it. A jury found that the will was valid and the contestants appealed.
While the Tennessee Supreme Court remanded the case for retrial on evidentiary grounds, the court’s opinion, authored by Justice Nathan Green, affirmed the legal right of the slaves to bring suit to probate the will. Ford’s children argued that “the devisees in this case are slaves, and have no rights, either perfect or inchoate, until the will manumitting them shall be proved.” Justice Green rejected this argument, which would obviously frustrate Ford’s intent. More significantly, however, the court also found the legal rights of Ford’s slaves to be worthy of protection. Green wrote: “A slave is not in the condition of a horse or an ox. His liberty is restrained, it is true. . . . But he is made after the image of the Creator. He has mental capacities, and an immortal principle in his nature, that constitute him equal to his owner but for the accidental position in which fortune has placed him. . . . [T]he laws under which he is held as a slave have not and cannot extinguish his high-born nature nor deprive him of his many rights which are inherent in man.” (1) On retrial, a jury found in the slaves’ favor a second time, and in 1850 they were finally freed and granted the property that Ford had bequeathed them.
Ford v. Ford demonstrated the tensions inherent in a system of civil law grounded on the notion of individual liberty operating in the context of a slaveholding culture. The antebellum Tennessee Supreme Court at least acknowledged the humanity of slaves, treating them as being “in the two-fold character of persons and property.” (2) More than the U.S. Supreme Court and many other southern courts, the Tennessee courts, for the most part, acknowledged and protected the legal rights of slaves. The progressive nature of this approach becomes more evident when contrasted with the opinion of U.S. Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott case, decided eleven years after Ford v. Ford. In that case, Taney found that, under the U.S. Constitution, even free blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” (3)
Arthur F. Howington, “Not in the Condition of a Horse or an Ox,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 34 (1975): 249-63