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State v Caesar, a Slave


State v Caesar, a Slave


In the case of State v Caesar Caesar, a slave killed a white man in an attempt to defend his friend from being beaten by a group of white men. Initially he was found guilty of murder, but the Supreme Circuit court overturned the decision and allowed him to have a new trial. The outcome, however, is irrelevant. The opinions define the importance of the case, the opinion of Justice Nash in particular. In it he cites the Gaston cases of Sate v Will and State v Jarrott, and agrees with Gaston in the advancement of slave rights.


J Nash

Original Format

Government Document


NASH, J. I concur with Judge PEARSON in the opinion, that the prisoner is entitled to have his [**26] cause reheard before another jury. The presiding judge erred in instructing the jury, that the assault and battery, committed by the deceased and the witness Brickhouse upon the prisoner and his associate Dick, was an ordinary assault, and did not extenuate the homicide. The time, a late hour in the night, when all appeal to the interference of [*407] white men was cut off--the manner, two drunken men, strangers to the prisoner, with their passions inflamed by lust and spirits--all shew, that it was not an ordinary assault and battery. It is not simply the force and instrument, that are actually used, which give to an assault its true character, but that character is derived in a great measure from the attending circumstances. Thus the touching of the person of a female in an indecent manner is considered as an aggravated offence--so a fillip on the nose. In each of these cases, no force but that of a legal character is used. And yet the perpetrator has so far lost the protection of the law, that, if slain immediately, the homicide is not murder, though a deadly weapon be used. His Honor, therefore, in my opinion, erred in telling the jury that the assault was an ordinary one. [**27] If he meant that no instrument or weapon of a dangerous character was used by the deceased and the witness Brickhouse, it was a fact that did not, necessarily, enter into the grade of the offence committed by them, and his language was well calculated to mislead the jury--to lead them to the conclusion, that no assault upon a slave by a white man can be an aggravated one, or calculated to produce that furor brevis, which dethrones reason for the time being, and repels the idea of malice in the slayer, except when a deadly or dangerous weapon is used. If such an effect could be produced on the minds of the jury, and cases can be shown in which the slaying of a white man by a slave will be extenuated from murder to manslaughter, where the assault and battery is an aggravated one, then there must be error in the charge, in point of law, and the prisoner is entitled to the benefit of the objection.
Suppose a parcel of drunken white men, say a dozen, meet a slave in the highway, in a lonely spot, and seize him, and while some hold him, others of the party proceed to beat him, and in his terror and pain he kills one [*408] of them with a deadly weapon, could it be pretended the [**28] slayer would be guilty of murder? It is said, the law does not allow a slave to feel the degradation of a blow, when inflicted by a white man, to the point of dethroning reason; does the law equally deny him the privilege of pleading the dethronement of reason from the passion of fear and apprehension? If this be so, then there was error in the charge. His Honor ought to have instructed the jury, that an assault made by a white man upon a slave, which endangers his life or threatens great bodily harm, will amount to a legal provocation. State v. Jarrott, 1 Ire. Rep. 86; State v. Will, 1 Dev. & Bat. 163. The prisoner was entitled to have the law, bearing upon the case, fully and correctly laid down by the court. This, in my judgment, has not been done in the matter now discussed; and as the verdict must have been affected by that error, the prisoner is entitled to a new trial.
But there is another and a graver question to be considered. At the time the prisoner struck the fatal blow, he was in no immediate danger of farther violence by the deceased and the witness Brickhouse. The witness Dick was, at the time of the killing, the sufferer--the blows were then being [**29] inflicted on him. If he had committed the homicide while being beaten, in my opinion his crime would have been manslaughter--is the killing by Caesar entitled to the same consideration? There is not the slightest evidence of any express malice--will the law, under the circumstances of this case, imply malice? Most certainly to my mind it will not. I have, in my preceding remarks, treated the case as if the blows, inflicted on Dick, at the time the fatal blow was given, had been inflicted on the prisoner. I have done so, because, if the prisoner were a white man, there is no doubt, at common law, his offence would have been manslaughter, and not murder. Upon this point, the opinion of my brother PEARSON is clear and conclusive. Does the fact, that the prisoner [*409] and his associate Dick are slaves, alter the law? This point has not heretofore been decided by this Court. By the common law the prisoner's offence would clearly be mitigated to manslaughter--by what legislative act, I mean by what act of the legislative power of this country, has that rule been altered as to slaves? Has this Court power to legislate, to establish "a rule of action," by which the citizens [**30] of the country shall govern themselves? Is it not a legislative act to dispense with a rule of the common law, which, in mercy to human frailty, has been adopted to save life? But I am called on, not only to abrogate one rule, but, necessarily, to introduce another. If you say, the prisoner is not entitled to the rule of the common law, which knows no difference of caste, then you not only strip him of a defense, which the common law secured to him, but you establish another rule, that a slave shall, in no case, strike a white man for an assault and battery upon another slave, no matter in what relation he stands to him, or what the force used by the white man, or what the nature of the weapon used by him. I ask for the authority so to declare. I am referred to the degraded state of slaves; that what would rouse to phrensy a white man, he is brought up from infancy to bow to. I am told, that policy and necessity require that a different rule should exist in the case of a slave. Necessity is the tyrant's plea, and policy never yet stript, successfully, the bandage from the eyes of Justice. It does not belong to the bench, but to the halls of legislation. I fully admit, that the degraded [**31] state of our slaves requires laws different from those applicable to white men, but I see no authority in the courts of justice to make the alteration. The evil is not one, which calls upon the Court to abandon their appropriate duty, that of enforcing the law as they find it. The legislature, and only the legislature, can alter the law. It is not likely, however, that they will undertake the task, difficult as it is admitted [*410] to be, while they find the courts of justice willing to take from them the responsibility of providing for the evil. There are several cases decided by this Court, upon the subject of homicide, committed by white men on slaves, and by slaves on white men. It is not my purpose, nor would it become me to sit in judgment, on this occasion, upon their correctness--they were made by able men and profound lawyers--by good men, who could not be seduced from what they considered the path of duty; and when a case shall come before me, which is governed by them, I may find it my duty to conform to them. This is a new case, and I feel not only justified but commanded to adhere to the common law. It sheds a steady light upon the path of the jurist, and gives him [**32] a safe and fixed rule to govern himself by. In all cases, to which my attention has been drawn, the Judges admit the difficulty of laying down any general rule different from that of the common law. The language of Chief Justice TAYLOR in Hale's case, is, "it is impossible to draw the line (speaking of what will constitute a legal provocation for a battery committed by a white man on a slave) with precision, or lay down the rule in the abstract, but, as was said in Tackett's case, the circumstances must be judged of by the court and jury, with a due regard to the habits and feelings of society." And the late Judge GASTON, than whom an abler judge or better man never sat upon the seat of justice, in Jarrott's case, after admitting, that no precise rule had been laid down, by which to pronounce what interference of a white man, not the owner, shall be deemed a sufficient legal provocation, and remarking upon the difficulty of so doing, winds up by saying, "that is a legal provocation, of which it can be pronounced, having a due regard to the relative condition of the white man and the slave, and the obligation of the latter to conform his instinct and his passion [**33] to his condition of inferiority, that it [*411] would provoke well disposed slaves into a violent passion. And the application of the rule must be left, until a more precise rule can be formed, to the intelligence and conscience of the triers." The same profound Judge, in Will's case, furnishes me with the rule for my judgment in this case, of which I gladly avail myself. Will was indicted for the murder of his overseer. His language is, "in the absence then of all precedents directly in point, or strictly analogous, the question recurs: if the passions of the slave be excited into unlawful violence, by the inhumanity of his master or temporary owner, or one clothed with the master's authority, is it a conclusion of law, that such passions must spring from diabolical malice? Unless I see my way clear as a sunbeam, I cannot believe that this is the law." Not only do I not see my way clear as a sunbeam, but my path, the moment I desert the well-known principles of the common law, is obscured by doubts and uncertainties. I look in vain to those, who have preceded me, for a safe guide. The common law tells me, that, although the passion excited in the mind [**34] of the prisoner, by witnessing the cruelty inflicted on his associate and companion, did not justify his killing, yet, springing as it did from the ordinary frailty of human nature, rebuts the idea of malice, and extenuates it to manslaughter. Why should I desert this safe guide, to wander in the mazes of judicial discretion, and that too, in a case of life and death; and which has been correctly designated by this Court, in a recent case, as the worst and most dangerous of tyrannies. The conclusion, to which I have been brought is, that this prisoner is entitled to a new trial for the error in the charge, as to the nature of the assault and battery committed by the white man. If I were called on to lay down a rule, by which a homicide committed by a slave on a white man in consequence of an assault and battery upon him, should be mitigated to manslaughter, and were at liberty to do so, I should adopt the one stated by Judge [*412] PEARSON in this case, as being safer and more distinct than any one yet suggested. Still in the language of Judge GASTON, in Jarrott's case, "the application of the principle must be left, until a more precise rule can be formed, to the intelligence [**35] and conscience of the triers."
In my opinion, the judgment must be reversed and a venire de novo awarded.


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J Nash, State v Caesar, a Slave, Civil War Era NC, accessed May 21, 2024,