Did a Dred Scott Dissenter Own A Slave? Archived Documents from 1823 Say Yes

April 17th, 2014

In Dred Scott v. Sanford, one of the two dissenters was Justice John McLean, who famously wrote, “If a State court may do this, on a question involving the liberty of a human being, what protection do the laws afford?” It is reported that McLean’s strong dissenting opinion forced Chief Justice Taney to take an even stronger position in favor of slavery. But what were McLean’s own positions towards slavery?

One of my (many) eBay alerts for the Supreme Court came across a listing titled “Archive regarding slave owned by Supreme Court Justice John McLean.” According to some documents from the period of 1823-1828, McLean hired a slave while living in Washington, D.C. For the handsome price of $7,500, this archive can be yours.


Here is the description of the archives:

Documents and letters concerning Richard, a slave belonging to John McLean (“I hope he has been a dutiful Servant & may continue to serve you … you mentioned it was probable that you might wish to return to Ohio & in that event, you did not wish to own Slaves…”) Later Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, McLean is especially remembered for his eloquent dissent in the Dred Scott case, arguing that Dred Scott was a U.S. citizen and that, even though born a slave, he was living in a free state where slavery was illegal.

On November 11, 1823, four weeks before he became Postmaster General in the cabinet of President James Monroe, Commissioner of the U.S. General Land Office John McLean hired a slave named Richard from Washington Bowie (1776-1826), a wealthy Georgetown merchant. Bowie later sold Richard to William S. Nicholls who sold him to McKean in 1828. John McLean served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1829-1861.


(1)       Manuscript Document, one page, 8” x 7”. [Washington, 1823]. Minor defects at perimeter. Fine condition. In full, “Jno McLeane [sic] Esqr. Dr. To Washington Bowie. 1823 Novr 11th. To hire of sevant [sic] Richard from 26th June to date 4½ mos. Less time called off to nurse my son say ½ mo.  4 @ 8$. $32.  Off for cloathing [sic] furnished.”

(2)       John McLean. Autograph Statement Signed “McLean” in text, two pages, 8” x 9.75”, front & verso. [Washington, D.C., 1823-1826]. Fine condition. McLean lists clothing he gave to Richard before Nicholls bought him from Bowie.

In full, “The following items have been furnished me by Mrs McLean as clothing given to Richard before Mr Nicholls purchased him.” John McLean lists the following, with prices, “Cash, 1 pair of pantaloons, 3 Shirts, 1 Suit of Clothes, Cassinet, Cash pd to Taylor for making the suit of clothes,” totaling $26.66¼ to which he added “2 pair of shoes 3.00” with new total of $29.66¼. McLean continues, “Under the circumstances that Mr Bowie intended to give Richard his time to Clothe him I gave him in cash $6. [McLean has added the $6.00 for a new total of $35.66¼ ] Whether this was before Mr. Nicholls purchased him or not I do not recollect. I was under the impression that there was that amt due for his wages & it was paid. By refering to the bills, I could give the dates of the purchases – but they were made sometime before Mr Nicholls purchased Richard. The clothing was all good, or the greater part of it, when Mr Nicholls purchased the boy – the $6 I gave him, was about the time of the purchase. Under the circumstances I am willing to pay Mr Bowie whatever is proper and Mr Nicholls & Mr Bowie may determine the amt and Mr N. will oblige me by paying it.”

(3)       William S. Nicholls. Autograph Letter Signed “W.S. Nicholls,” one page, 8” x 7”. Georgetown, D.C., July 12, 1828.  Tear in blank area from fold. Integral leaf (seal tear) addressed by Nicholls to “Honb. John McLean / Post Master General / Washington City.” Postmarked “Geoe.Town D.C. Jul 13” and “Free.” Fine condition.

In full, “If perfectly convenient to you (and not otherwise) I shall be glad to have the amt due me for Richard – I have made up the a/c to this time, & Send you included the bill of sale, from Mr. Bowie with my assignment upon the same. I hope he has been a dutiful Servant & may continue to serve you. Faithfully very respectfully I am Dr Sir your ob Sert W.S. Nicholls.” In the upper portion of this page, William S. Nicholls has penned, in full, “John McLean Esqr To W.S. Nicholls Dr. 1823 Nov. 11. Negro Man named Richard $500.= bot by Me from W. Bowie. Interest from the 11th Nov 1823 to 11th July 1828 – 4 years & 8 mos. $140 // $640.” Computations in lower left.

(4)       William S. Nicholls. Autograph Letter Signed “W.S. Nicholls,” 1.5 pages, 8” x 9.75”, front & verso. Georgetown, D.C., July 15, 1828. Minor nicks at right edge. Integral leaf (seal tear) addressed by Nicholls to “Honble. John McLean / Post Master General / Washington City / Mail.” Postmarked “Geoe.Town D.C. Jul 16” and “Free.” Docketed by McLean on address leaf: “Conveyance for / Richard.” Fine condition.

In full, “Your favor of the 14th Inst is recd – I were [sic] not aware that we had fixed the price of Richard at 400$ = I recollect that, in a conversation, with you previous to my purchasing Richard, that you mentioned 400$ as the sum you would be willing to give, provided I made the purchase – as it was expected, he could be had for that sum – I assure you most positively that I paid 500$ for him & there cannot be a doubt of it = but notwithstanding, if the price was fixed at 100$ [sic, 400$] I should not now expect, or charge you more than I agreed fore – Mr. Bowie considered he gave me a great bargain at that time, – as house Servants Sold very high – Sometime after the purchase was made by me from Mr B. I recollect, you mentioned it was probable that you might wish to return to Ohio & in that event, you did not wish to own Slaves & that I agreed to make the Sale, or take him back, whichever might be most agreeable to you, – but as you are certain that we had fixed the price at 400$ I shall be satisfied to let it be so, – although I paid more, – I wish no more than I agreed for, – and if I had supposed that we had named 400$, I certainly should not have charged more in the a/c – I will call & see you the first time I come to your part of the City – in the mean time, I hope you will not put your self to any trouble, or inconvenience in this matter, as you can take your own time to settle it. With great respect I am Sir your Ob Svt. W.S. Nicholls.”

In December 1825, “The National Intelligencer” published the following ad:  “W. S. Nicholls, Georgetown. I want to purchase a servant boy, from 17 to 20 years of age, to wait in my family. For one of good character for honesty and sobriety, I will give a liberal price.” The records of the American Colonization Society, founded to “return” free African Americans to Africa, show that on January 6, 1840, in the Presbyterian Church, Georgetown, D.C., Rev. Mr. McKenney collected a donation from “Mrs. W.S. Nicholls $5.”