Trial of William Freeman

William H. SEWARD   |   William FREEMAN   |   Benjamin F. HALL

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"THE COLOR OF THE PRISONER'S SKIN, AND THE FORM OF HIS FEATURES ARE NOT IMPRESSED UPON THE SPIRITUAL MIND… HE IS STILL YOUR BROTHER, AND MINE … HOLD HIM THEN TO BE A MAN": FIRST EDITION OF TRIAL OF WILLIAM FREEMAN, 1848, SIGNALING THE "FIRST USE OF THE INSANITY DEFENSE IN THE U.S."

(SEWARD, William) HALL, Benjamin F. The Trial of William Freeman, For the Murder of John G. Van Nest, Including the Evidence and the Arguments of Counsel, With the Decision of the Supreme Court Granting a New Trial, And an Account of the Death of the Prisoner, And of the Post-Mortem Examination of His Body… Auburn: Derby, Miller & Co., 1848. Octavo, contemporary three-quarter brown morocco and marbled boards. Housed in custom cloth clamshell box. $4500.

First edition of the definitive report documenting the controversial 1846 trial of African American William Freeman—"a landmark in American history"—with extensive reportage, expert medical testimony and the famed defense of Freeman by William H. Seward, Lincoln’s future Secretary of State and "one of the most prominent antislavery politicians of the antebellum period", very scarce in contemporary three-quarter morocco.

When Freeman, son of an enslaved father freed before his birth, was charged with murdering John Van Nest and his family in 1846, Lincoln's future Secretary of State, William Seward, became a target of rage for choosing to defend Freeman, who confessed and "narrowly avoided two lynch mobs as the sheriff's posse took him to the county jail" (Mullins, "Race, Place and African-American Disenfranchisement"). Wrongly convicted and sentenced at 16 to hard labor in prison, Freeman was often beaten, enduring "severe injury when he was repeatedly hit on the head with a length of wood. From then on, he suffered from deafness and existed in a state of mental confusion" (New York Historical Society). By the time of Freeman's trial, Seward had become "one of the most prominent antislavery politicians of the antebellum period" (Hodges, Encyclopedia of African American History, 85). As the trial opened, "no lawyer was willing to take Freeman's case… when the court asked, 'Will anyone defend this man?' a 'death-like stillness pervaded the crowded room' until Seward rose, his voice strong with emotion, and said, 'May it please the court, I shall remain counsel for the prisoner until his death'" (Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, 85).

Seward, who had already served in the U.S. Senate and as governor of New York, would become "one of the most conservative members of Lincoln's cabinet." Yet as governor he "refused to return to Virginia a group of free Black sailors accused of helping a slave to escape" (Finkelman, Slavery in the Courtroom, 72). He also spurred the "state legislature to pass a series of antislavery laws affirming the rights of Black citizens against seizure by Southern agents." Seward researched Freeman's case for weeks, "summoning five doctors who testified to the prisoner's extreme state of mental illness" (Kearns Goodwin, 83-6). As part of his defense, Seward pointedly cited an 1844 trial involving Klein, a man similarly accused who was acquitted and sent to the State Lunatic Asylum. Seward points out here: "Klein was a white man. Freeman is a Negro" (378).

While "there was never any doubt that the local jury would return a guilty verdict… Seward's defense of Freeman became famous throughout the country" (Kearns Goodwin, 86), and is "one of the most eloquent of his speeches" (ANB). As he states here: "The color of the prisoner's skin, and the form of his features, are not impressed upon the spiritual mind… he is still your brother, and mine… Hold him then to be a Man… There is not a WHITE man or WHITE woman who would not have been dismissed long since from the perils of such a prosecution, if it had only been proved that the offender was so ignorant and so brutalized as not to understand the defense of insanity had been interposed" (emphasis in original).

The Freeman case is deemed the "first use of the insanity defense in the United States" (Historical Society). It is, as well, "the first American declaration" of England's M'Naghten Rule. By the time the New York Supreme Court acted on Seward's appeal by reversing Freeman's conviction and calling for a new trial, he "was found not physically fit to withstand it… his hearing loss was nearly total, he had purulent discharge from his ear, and his vision had deteriorated." He died in his cell in August 1847 and an autopsy revealed advanced brain deterioration. The importance of the Freeman case, "a landmark in American history… continued into the 20th century as legislatures outlined standards for trial competency that distinguish it from criminal responsibility… reportage of the trial and the magnitude of expert testimony are also landmarks" (Weiss & Gupta, "America's First M'Naghten Defense"; emphasis added). First edition, first printing: with no statement of edition or printing on the copyright page. "Reported by Benjamin F. Hall." With Seward's plate of "Three Classes—Thirty Six Faculties." A separate pamphlet printing containing only Seward's summary argument appeared in 1846. "The case did much to insure a better hearing for the insane who, until then, received small consideration in the courts" (McDade 324). Sabin 25785. Cohen 12578. Harvard Law Catalog 1079. Blockson 4616. Early owner inscription. small numerical notation to rear pastedown.

Text with scattered marginal foxing, rubbing to contemporary boards, binding expertly restored and recased with endpapers renewed.

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