north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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           On January 22, 1834, Will, a slave belonging to James Battle at his Edgecombe County plantation, Walnut Creek, killed a white man. The charges brought against Will at the time resulted in the State v. Will case, in which the North Carolina Supreme Court protected slaves from a charge of murder when acting in self-defense.

           The day started with an argument between Will and a slave foreman named Allen over the possession of a hoe that Will had made by hand. Tempers flared and Will broke the hoe before going to work at a nearby cotton mill. After learning of Will’s behavior, Richard Baxter, Battle’s overseer, set off on horseback with his gun. Allen followed with his whip. Confronted by Baxter, Will attempted to flee but was shot in the back. Wounded and running for his life, Will was overtaken. Armed with a knife, Will fought off Baxter. A deep knife wound to Baxter’s arm proved fatal.

           Will was charged with murder, although a white man in the same circumstances would have been charged with manslaughter. After looking at the evidence Battle believed that Will acted in self-defense, and he hired two prominent attorneys, Bartholomew Figures Moore and George Washington Mordecai, to defend Will against the murder conviction.

           The case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that any slave under such provocation could only be charged with manslaughter. This challenged the 1829 State v. Mann decision which held that a master’s power over a slave was absolute and that the slave’s submission must be “perfect.”

           Justice William Gaston, who wrote the opinion, said that the law required exceptions to the unconditional and absolute power over slaves as described in Justice Thomas Ruffin’s State v. Mann. In a direct reference to Thomas Ruffin’s opinion in Mann, Moore had opened his argument with the point that “absolute power is irresponsible power, circumscribed by no limits save its own imbecility and selecting its own means with unfettered discretion.” Gaston reasoned that the act was "a brief fury" that left Will incapable of rational thought. Further humanizing Will he wrote that it was “instinctive to fly, human to struggle, and terror or resentment the strongest of passions, had given the struggle its fatal issue.”

           It was Gaston’s conclusion that the law must treat slaves as any other human in such a case. He stated, "If the passions of the slave be excited into unlawful violence by the inhumanity of a master . . . is it a conclusion of law that such passion must spring from diabolical malice?" The decision was praised by abolitionists, covered by newspapers around the country, and cited as precedent in other legal cases. Will’s bold act of resistance served to humanize slaves in the eyes of the law.


References:
Joseph Herman Schauinger, “William Gaston and the Supreme Court of North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (April 1944): 97-117
Martin H. Brinkley, “State v. Negro Will,” NCPedia and Encyclopedia of North Carolina
John S. Bassett, “The Case of State v. Will,” Trinity College Historical Papers (1898)
George Gordon Battle, “The State of North Carolina v. Negro Will, as Slave of James S. Battle; A Cause Celebre of Ante-Bellum Times,” Virginia Law Review (April 1920) https://www.jstor.org/stable/1063172?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
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