Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Trading with the Enemy, Shot by a Former Slave: Baltimore Merchant Samuel Goldsmith Griffith

Trading with the Enemy, Shot by a Former Slave: Baltimore Merchant

Samuel Goldsmith Griffith (1777-1820)

September 12, is Defender's Day in Maryland marking the defeat of the British at Baltimore in 1814, and the origin of our National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. The war put Baltimore on the map and put the city on course to becoming the second largest city in the Nation with global trade connections, particularly Europe, Africa, South America, China, and the Carribean.

Samuel Goldsmith Griffith (1777-1820), a prominent Baltimore merchant during the War of 1812, met an inglorious end. He was shot to death by a black man living in Pennsylvania, John Reed, who Griffith claimed was a slave and his property. The two trials of John Reed are examined in detail in Legal Practice and Pragmatics in the Law: The 1821 Trials of John Reed, “Fugitive Slave”, by Linda Myrsiades, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 138, No. 3 (July 2014), pp. 305-338. Confined to jail under a sentence of 108 months for the killing of Griffith's accomplice, the fate of John Reed is to date unknown.

The facts of the case were established in the trials. Linda Myrsiades summarizes them:

J OHN REED, A PERSON OF COLOR, had come to Pennsylvania from Maryland, representing himself as a free man, some two or three years before the events that led to his being tried for two murders. To the reporters who publicized his case in the Chester County Village Record, “It appeared suffi ciently clear” that Reed was the child of the slave Maria, who had been a queen in her native Africa.1 Between twenty-seven and thirty years old in 1820, married, and with one child, he lived in Kennett Township, where he worked odd jobs in the neighborhood.2 Reed’s life in Chester County was marked by anxiety; he rarely went unarmed and frequently expressed his fear of kidnappers who, he claimed, had previously tried to enslave him. As his neighbors would soon discover, his fears were not unwarranted. Samuel Griffi th, a slave owner from Maryland, claimed ownership of Reed and considered him a runaway. Reed, it was later discovered, could not demonstrate his free status, as he could show “no proof of manumission.”3 On the night of December 14, 1820, Griffi th, supported by a posse of three—his overseer, Peter Shipley, and two men identifi ed as Miner and Pearson—attempted to seize Reed from his Kennett Township home in the dark of night. Griffi th and Shipley were fatally wounded in the attack, succumbing shortly afterward.

As to his not so illustrious career as a merchant, Griffith was not beneath trading with the enemy, and lost his plea for recovery of his ship the Hiram and its illegal cargo after it had been captured by a licensed privateer during the war.

The story of the Hiram and its cargo is first officially reported in print by Henry Wheaton in 1 Wheaton 440, published in 1816. Briefly stated, it is a case brought by Samuel Goldsmith Griffith, the consignor/owner of a cargo of flour shipped on the Hiram from Baltimore in the fall of 1812 (after war was declared) to Lisbon, Portugal to help feed the British Army. It was brought against the American privateer Thorn, which captured the Hiram on its way to Lisbon. The Theron claimed the Hiram and its cargo as a prize after discovering that the Hiram was a vessel operating under a safe conduct license from the British which was against American law in the time of war, and made the Hiram subject to capture as a prize of war. The owners of the cargo claimed they knew nothing of the license and sought to have their goods (the flour) returned. The court decided to uphold the lower court decision that even if the owners of the cargo were unaware of the license, it was the illegal action of the ship’s owner in obtaining the license that made the ship and cargo liable for capture by the American privateer, and that all the proceeds belong to the captors (the Thorn, its owners, captain, and crew). [1]

[1] Note that without recourse to the minutes from the Massachusetts Federal Circuit Court, you would not know that the lower court opinion that was affirmed by the Supreme Court was written by Justice Story sitting on circuit with the Circuit Court judge Davis who, in 1808, had asserted Congress had the right to impose an embargo on trade, thus allowing for cases of infractions of Jefferson's embargo to go forward in his court. In all 40 such cases, many apparently argued successfully by Samuel Dexter, were heard by juries in Davis's court, in all of which juries found for the defendants, despite clear evidence that they had defied the Embargo. The surviving evidence and proceedings in the case of the Hiram are to be found in

1) the engrossed (polished) minutes of the U. S. Supreme Court from 1789- contained on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publication M215.

2) the dockets of the U. S. Supreme Court from contained on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publication M216

3) the surviving transcripts of case files submitted on appeal to the Supreme Court for the year 1815 contained on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publication, M214.

4) the record of when the attorneys in the case admitted to practice before the Supreme Court contained on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publication M217

Finding the minutes of the case is relatively easy because the printed report of the case is presented in the context of the term in which the case was decided, in this instance, February Term, 1816. The minutes of the trial of the Hiram are to be found as the last entry on the last day of term, March 22, 1816, an entry followed by a rule regarding further proof required by the Court, and the appointment of Henry Wheaton as court reporter.

Finding the docket entry for a case is more difficult as the dockets are in chronological order from the day the case was first brought to the Court's attention. For example the Hiram's docket entry is found on folio 805 for February Term 1815, meaning that the case was entered on the Supreme Court docket then and, as indicated in the docket, decided on March 22, 1816. Note that the docket contains a stamped number '752' added much later which refers to how the Supreme Court had filed the case papers from the lower court and the order in which the National Archives filmed those papers.

Because it takes a year or two on average, in the era of the assigned cases, from the entry on the docket to the resolution of the case by the Court, the hunt for the dockets in the assigned cases usually begins one or two terms before the year of decision in the case as reflected in the minutes and the printed reports.

As indicated in the docket, the case papers for the Hiram from the lower court (in this case the Federal District of Massachusetts, have survived and are filed as noted in the docket, on February 22, 1815.

Finding when the attorneys in the Hiram case were first admitted to practice before the Supreme Court from this e-publication is partially answered by the alphabetical index at the beginning of National Archives microfilm publication M217. For the Hiram, the lawyers who argued the case before the Supreme Court were William Pinkney, admitted February 8, 1806, and Samuel Dexter, who does not appear on the index to the rolls, but is well known from his friendship with Justice Story and appeared as opposing counsel in privateering cases with William Pinkney until his death from scarlet fever in Athens, New York, in May of 1816, following his win in the Hiram case.

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