Tuesday, March 8, 2011

March 8, 1655 – John Casor Declared an Indentured Servant

What started as a private disagreement, this monumental case in the young American colonies would establish precedence for the clarity of indentured servitude and all but end the notion of slavery for the Virginia Colony. Anthony Johnson, a Black colonist who came to America in 1619 as an indentured servant, one from the first “20 and odd negroes”, had realized his freedom and was granted fifty acres as was customary in the colonial settlement. Through "hard labor and known service" (as described in another, later legal case), Anthony and his wife Mary had grown fairly wealthy with a farm of 250 acres. As part of this, he was able to take on five indentured servants, one of whom was John Casor.

After several years of work, John determined that he had earned his freedom and paid back his debts from being brought over to the colonies. Anthony "was in a feare. Upon this his sonne in lawe, his wife and his two sonnes perswaded the said Anthony Johnson to sett the said John Casor free", which should have ended the matter. However, after a debilitating fire on his plantation in 1653, Anthony sought to rebuild, and he needed help of the servant he had given freedom. He took up a case against Robert Parker, a neighboring White planter who had taken on John Casor as a hired hand. In Johnson vs Parker, Anthony called for the return of Casor as well as damages for having lost his “servant for life.” After much deliberation, it was determined that there was no paperwork in the matter (having been lost or nonexistent, a possibility as Anthony Johnson was illiterate), and that having one’s word against another was a wobbly groundwork for law in the colonies. A man would not be a slave unless rigorously documented, which made indentured servitude the much more viable option.

Casor remained a free man working under Parker while Anthony sold the remainder of his farm and moved to Somerset County, where he would lease a 300-acre farm for ninety-nine years. Meanwhile, the influx of indentured servants bolstered the expansion of the colony as each would be granted 50 acres upon their freedom. The Virginia Colony exploded with growth, and soon other colonies would be founded, most emulating the anti-slave law, though fewer would agree with the easy citizenship of Blacks, as granted in another case concerning Anthony Johnson’s land upon his death in 1670 in which his grandchildren were able to establish landowning rights.

Without slaves, it was argued, the building up of the colonies was slowed, but modern historians disagree, stating that a firmer, wider population of farmers maximized land use rather than plantations, as was seen in the Free Soil movement of the mid-1800s. As part of the transitory period between 1719 and 1729, South Carolina amended its laws to allow widespread slavery, which was crucial to building its economy on rice-harvesting since the skills of imported slaves were key to cultivation. In one of his many fiery essays in 1775, Thomas Paine would publish “African Slavery in America,” a work condemning slavery in an age of enlightenment. Anti-slavery became a key part of the movement for independence, which would ignite the South, particularly South Carolina, in disagreement. The matter would finally be solved by the war effort, promising freedom to slaves who volunteered for the army and declaring restrictive masters to be “Tories.”

After several decades of growth, the United States would again be torn apart by the Nullification Crisis over the Tariff of 1828 (also known as the “Tariff of Abominations” by detractors). The question of central federal power over states’ rights in confederation again was raised forty years after the Constitution had replaced the Articles of Confederation. South Carolina led the charge in declaring “nullification” rights and was followed by the agricultural states of the South. President Andrew Jackson and his preparedness for a fight led to the fast-moving Civil War with U.S. Army troops collecting taxes while defeating opposing militias. Fear of overwhelming federal power struck the country, but, upon Martin Van Buren’s election in 1836 near the closing days of the war, the nation came back together.

Although the United States was one of the earliest modern nations to abolish slavery, racial tensions would continue through the nineteenth century. Gradually through the work of conferences, African Americans and even women would be granted full rights and non-restricted votes by the turn of the twentieth century.


In reality, Anthony Johnson won his case, and John Casor was returned to him as servant for life. Johnson would build up his holdings with a leased farm in Somerset County, but a White neighbor would lay claim upon the land upon Johnson’s death as Blacks could not hold citizenship. The same social background that had aided him in winning Casor as a slave would work against him as a Black man, creating legal precedent for racism that would haunt America for centuries.

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