Quest for freedom

New book recounts one woman’s antebellum efforts

Posted: February 4, 2018 at 1 a.m.

I have just finished a new book about a series of court cases involving Abby Guy, a resident of Ashley County who on Jan. 28, 1855, filed a petition for freedom, claiming that she and her four minor children were being "wrongfully held in a state of slavery by one William Daniel." It would take six years for this legal process to finish, with the case making its way to the Arkansas Supreme Court on two occasions, before Abby, at age 50, finally gained freedom for herself and her children.

I was not familiar with this story of human perseverance before I received a copy of the recently published Abby Guy: Race and Slavery on Trial in an 1855 Southern Court by Russell Mahan, a resident of Utah who has previously published on the Civil War in Arkansas. And the Abby Guy we meet is amazing for her strong will and determination to gain her freedom.

Time, the great eraser of historical documentation, has taken its toll on the available records. Repeatedly, author Mahan was forced to rely on common sense and educated conjecture in putting the puzzle together -- although he alerts the reader when his documentation is scanty.

Here is how Abby explained her personal story in the petition for freedom: "Your petitioner Abby was born in this period [when Abby's mother was a slave of the Daniel family of Alabama and later Ashley County, Arkansas] and her condition [in] the hands of Nat Daniel was also more favored than that of an ordinary slave, and she submitted during his life to that condition. The two first named children [Elizabeth F. Daniel and Mary Daniel] are said Nat Daniel's children. At the death of said Nat Daniel in ... Alabama, some twelve or fifteen years ago, he manumitted [through] his last will your petitioner Abby and the children then born ... and also made ample provision for their support."

At this point in the petition, Abby stated that the man holding her in slavery, William Daniel, had been executor of the estate of his brother Nat Daniel and he "assented to the manumission of your said Petitioners, and ever since until within about a month ago, has permitted your said petitioners to enjoy perfect freedom."

In an interesting and highly unusual claim, Abby said later in an addition to the original pleading, that she and her children were "white persons, and are not slaves, but free." Later efforts to refute this claim would result in some outlandish physical inspections of Abby and her children by the jury.

The very fact that an illiterate woman would be able to file a legal challenge against her enslavement speaks to the fact that Abby was supported by a large number of white friends and, in two cases, her white spouses.

John Arnold, a 70-year-old white widower living with his son, was not only Abby's former lover, he was the father of her youngest daughter, Malissa Ann Arnold. When the courts put Abby's labor up for bid pending the outcome of her petition for freedom, John Arnold not only went to the courthouse on Feb. 5, 1855, and made the highest bid, he also moved Abby and her children into his home. Several local white farmers, mostly slave owners, agreed to guarantee the bond required of John Arnold as the winning bidder.

This little book is packed with interesting and often unexpected developments. Nothing surprised me more than the high quality of Abby's legal representation and the persistence of those lawyers in what was most likely a pro bono arrangement. The original petition for freedom was developed by two Ashley County lawyers, John C. Waddell and Benoni S. Dubose. Waddell, a 34-year-old Tennessee native, was a newcomer to Hamburg, and he had not known Abby Guy previously. Dubose , also 34, was a native of South Carolina, and he had recently started a legal practice in Warren, the county seat of adjoining Bradley County.

Given their limited appeals experience, Waddell and Dubose recruited two of the best lawyers in Arkansas -- Albert Pike and Augustus H. Garland -- to handle the case before the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Representing William Daniel was another of the great antebellum trial lawyers of Arkansas, James Yell of Pine Bluff. The nephew of former Arkansas governor and congressman Archibald Yell (who had been killed a few years earlier in the Mexican War), James Yell was only 44, but he cut a wide swath in Arkansas politics, serving as a major general in the state militia and as a presidential elector in 1848.

Yell's pleading was that Abby's mother was an enslaved woman of mixed race, that Abby was born a slave as well her children, and they had never been freed.

One would expect Yell's arguments to set well with the circuit judge hearing the case, Theodoric F. Sorrels, who at age 33, had done much in his short life -- including fighting in the Mexican War, purchasing a large farm and working it with 25 slaves, and establishing a reputation as a good lawyer and circuit judge.

Despite being a slave owner, Sorrels seemed to bend over backward to give Abby Guy a fair hearing before a jury of 12 men -- many of whom owned slaves. Importantly, Judge Sorrels instructed the jury that "the fact that the plaintiffs or their ancestors have been actually held in slavery ... are not conclusive evidence that they were rightfully held in slavery..." Then, at the end, Judge Sorrels instructed that "every presumption, consistent with reason, should be indulged in favor of freedom."

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Abby and her children, and Judge Sorrels promptly issued an order declaring that all the plaintiffs "are hereby liberated from all service of William Daniel and are declared to be free persons."

By this point the whole case has become a cause for William Daniel and his attorney. They immediately filed an appeal -- which meant that Abby was held in slavery pending the appeals. Abby once again demonstrated her remarkable will if not audacity: She married her 70-year-old lover and the man who hired her time, John Arnold.

Abby's happiness was short lived because the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled against her, sending the parties back to circuit court. This pattern would be repeated until February 1861 -- as America was sliding into civil war -- when the state Supreme Court finally affirmed a second circuit court trial which ruled in Abby's favor.

Sadly, Abby quickly disappeared from the historical record after she received her freedom.

Russell Mahan's book on the tribulations, trials and ultimate triumph of Abby Guy contains 132 pages, is softbound, and is priced at $11.95.

Tom Dillard is a historian living in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

NAN Profiles on 02/04/2018