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Circuit Court Opinions:

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, United States v. Amy (1859)

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1836–1864)

United States v. Amy, 24 F. Cas. 792 (C.C.E.D. Va. 1859) (No. 14,445) [Fourth Circuit]

In 1859, an enslaved woman named Amy was indicted for stealing a letter from the U.S. mail. After a jury trial, she was convicted. Her attorney made a motion to set aside the sentence on the ground that she was not subject to the federal statute under which she was charged. That law made it a federal offense “if any person shall steal or take a letter from the mail, or any post-office.” Those legally deemed property, the attorney argued, were not “persons” within the terms of the statute.  

Chief Justice Taney denied the motion, finding that the statute could not be read to exclude enslaved people from its purview. The Constitution, he noted, described those enslaved as people even as it protected the right to hold them as property. The clause regarding the slave trade, for example, referred to “such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit,” and the Fugitive Slave Clause used the phrase “person held to service or labor.” Moreover, said Taney, each state’s legislative apportionment depended on “the whole number of free persons,” and “three-fifths of all other persons,” the latter of which included enslaved people.

In reasoning consistent with his Supreme Court opinion in the Dred Scott case, Taney candidly acknowledged “the twofold character of the slave,” which put legal obligations upon enslaved people and provided legal rights only to slaveholders. The enslaved person “is a person, and also property,” he wrote. “As property, the rights of the owner are entitled to the protection of the law. As a person, he is bound to obey the law, and may, like any other person, be punished if he offends against it.”

Taney pointed out that a criminal statute providing for monetary fines might pose problems if applied to the enslaved because it would be impossible for them to pay the fines and it would be unjust to force slaveholders to pay in their stead. The statute at hand, however, provided only for imprisonment, and Taney therefore found no bar to imposing sentence. The imprisonment of an enslaved person, Taney acknowledged, deprived the slaveholder of labor, but it did not constitute a taking of property without due process of law, he explained, because the enslaved person was not being taken for the benefit of the government.