Squire, Birney, and the Judge

On May 5, “the first Monday after the fourth Monday in April,” 1823, an unlikely thing happened at the Madison county court house.

It all started on the night of February 15, 1822, when around 11pm someone at “the dwelling house of Obadiah Jones there situate feloniously and Burglariously did break and enter.” Obadiah Jones was well known in Madison county, having served as its only judge during the territorial period. So when a thief “did steal take and carry away one bank note for the payment of ten dollars,” they stole not just from a rich man but from one of the most important men in Alabama.

The only suspect was Squire.

Squire’s brief description in the court records reads thus “a negro slave (belonging to one Alfred Shelly).” There is no indication as to why Squire became the chief suspect. The county had not yet banned the enslaved from working in their free time, so Squire might have earned enough money to become suspicious. Or it simply could have been that Obadiah Jones claimed he saw a black man and Squire lived nearby.

Either way, this is the first recorded case of a slave appearing in court in Madison county. It is difficult to imagine the terror that Squire must have felt or the striking imbalance of power that everyone must have recognized. Here was a member of the lowest caste facing off against a member of the highest.

Of course, that was before it was ordered by the court “that James G Birney Esq be assigned council for the said negro slave.”

James Gillespie Birney had a long and interesting career. He was born in Kentucky and during his childhood was tutored by antislavery advocates. Although he was gifted his first slave at the age of six and briefly had a plantation in Triana – the brutal realities of slavery never sat well with him. In the early 1830’s he quit practicing law and traveled throughout the Deep South trying to convince free blacks to leave America for their supposed new homeland in Liberia. Birney eventually abandoned the idea of colonization altogether, left the South, freed all his slaves, and became a staunch abolitionist – even running for president on the Liberty Party ticket in 1840 – the first time a national party called for the complete and total end of slavery in the United States.*

But all of that was later. For now Birney was known in Huntsville as a man who represented counterfeiters, the victims of mob violence, and spoke out against Andrew Jackson’s 1819 invasion of Florida – a liberal lawyer with a soft spot for the dispossessed.

A liberal lawyer but a good one.

Unfortunately the courts of this era did not keep strict transcripts, so the oratory is lost. They simply recorded judgments. So all that is left to us is this: “we the Jury find the said negro man Squire not Guilty in manners and form as he is charged in said bill of Indictment.”

As rare as it is to find enslaved people as defendants or plaintiffs in court documents, it is rarer still when they win. So although Squire’s victory was certainly bittered by his continued bondage, he probably understood how unlikely his acquittal seemed from the outset and how strange it was that, for once in his life, he was treated equally under the law.

* Michael, the gifted slave, was four year old at the time. They were playmates, and later, after Birney’s revelation about the horrors of slavery and his subsequent manumissions, good friends.

The State of Alabama v. Squire, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 147-148 (1823).

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