"THE MOST EXCESSIVE VIOLENCE… CHAINED, TIED AND IN OTHER WAYS BARBAROUSLY TREATED": EXCEEDINGLY RARE 1803 AUTOGRAPH LEGAL DOCUMENT WRITTEN AND SIGNED BY FRANCIS SCOTT KEY AS THE ATTORNEY FOR "NEGRO TOM" IN A PETITION AGAINST "VIOLENT AND SAVAGE" BEATINGS
KEY, Francis Scott. Autograph document signed. (Maryland): Frederick County Court, August 3, 1803. Single ivory folio leaf (measures 8 by 13-1/4 inches) in manuscript, docketed on the verso. Housed in a custom folding portfolio. $19,500.
Rare autograph legal document written and signed by Francis Scott Key as attorney in an 1803 Maryland petition on behalf of a black slave suffering brutal violence at the hands of his "master," this extraordinary document a testament to America's history of slavery and the complex legacy of Key, famed for the Star-Spangled Banner, who was a lifelong slave owner yet nonetheless represented slaves and freed African Americans.
This 1803 document is written and signed by Francis Scott Key. It reads: "To the Honorable the Justices of Frederick County Court. The petition of Negro Tom humbly sheweth that he was brought from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania into this State, that he is a servant in the possession of a certain Philip Dietric of Frederick County, & that said Dietric claims the services of your Petitioner until he shall arrive at the age of twenty eight—Your Petitioner further states that he daily receives from his master the said Dietric the most inhuman treatment, that on very frequent occasions he has been beaten by the said Dietric with the most excessive violence, & has at other times suffered most cruelly by being chained, tied and in other ways barbarously treated. –The said Dietric still continues almost Daily to use your Petitioner in the above described violent & savage manner—Your Petitioner states that although from his miserable situation the said Dietric has frequent opportunities of excessively beating and otherwise abusing him without your petitioner being able to procure witnesses or otherwise make complaint of such usage, yet if permitted by your Honors he will endeavor to prove the truth of the facts above state.—He therefore humbly prays that your honors will take his unfortunate condition into your consideration & take such measures to prevent any repetition of his injuries as the law directs and your honors think proper.—[signed] F.S.Key for Pet'r." Continued in manuscript on the verso: "Witnesses for Petitioner, Frederick Clance, Bernard Gilbert." Docketed "390 W1 1801 Petn. Negro Tom filed 3d August 1803, and own that [unclear] & to bring [unclear]. 12 Aug. fined 600 lbs. tob."
This case points to the complexity of the situation in Maryland at the time. The petitioner, "Negro Tom," was sold to Dietric with the stipulation that he honor the terms of Pennsylvania's gradual abolition law and free Tom at the age of 28. Under a 1783 law that banned slave owners from other states from bringing their slaves into Maryland to live, Key was known for "representing slaves and freed African Americans in legal disputes, including civil actions in which slaves petitioned for their freedom. On the other hand, Key also represented slave owners in legal fights to retain their runaway human property." In cases such as this, with Key as the petitioner for the savagely beaten "Negro Tom," Key pressed "the rights of his petitioners to the extent of the law… Still the fact remains that Key bought and sold other human beings throughout his adult life… [and] he helped shape the national debate over slavery with his disdain for abolition" (Leepson, What So Proudly, xi- xii, 25). As is indicated on this document's verso, the court's resolution was a fine of "600 lbs. tob[acco]." The original document is accompanied by a full-page typed transcript.
Text clear with bold signature, faint foldlines, lightest edge-wear not affecting text, an exceptional about-fine document housed in an elegant folding portfolio.