Despite our natural inclinations….

by Lisa Y. Henderson

William Mayho, by his next friend, v. Edward Sears, 25 NC 224 (1842).

On 23 July 1805, John Moring of Surry County, Virginia, executed a deed of manumission for his slaves. Hannah, Patrick, Cherry, Jordan and Charlotte were to be freed immediately.  Isabel, Carter, Polly, Burwell, Maria and Willis were to be set free over the next 19 years, according to a set schedule. Thereafter, Moring moved to Orange County, North Carolina, bringing Polly with him. Prior to 1 April 1814 (her scheduled date of manumission), Polly gave birth to a daughter, who gave birth to plaintiff William Mayho in about 1830.  After 1 April 1814, Polly, her daughter and grandson lived by themselves and acted in every respect as free persons.  They were regarded as free people of color by their neighbors and recognized as such by Moring, until 1838, when he sold Mayho to Edward Sears.

The question before the North Carolina Supreme Court was whether Mayho’s mother was free at birth, or became so prior to his birth.  “There is a natural inclination in the bosom of every judge to favor the side of freedom, and a strong sympathy with the plaintiff, and the other persons situated as he is, who have been allowed to think themselves free and act for so long a time as if they were; and, if we were permitted to decide this controversy according to our feelings, we should with promptness and pleasure pronounce or judgment for the plaintiff.  But the court is to be governed by a different rule, the impartial and unyielding rule of the law; and, after, giving to the case an anxious and deliberate consideration, we find ourselves obliged to hold, that in the law the condition of the plaintiff is that of slavery.”  In other words, applying the laws of Virginia, Polly was still a slave when her daughter was born, making the daughter a slave, and Mayho a slave in turn.