Fred James


These are difficult times.  In reflection, I re-read the first opinion from the Iowa Supreme Court.  It made me proud to be an Iowa lawyer.  It brought me hope.

The case is styled, In the Matter of Ralph (A Colored Man). It was decided in July 1839 22 years before the Civil War. The Iowa Court consisted of three Justices.  The opinion was written by Chief Justice Charles Mason.

In the beginning Iowa was part of the Northwest territory and the Louisiana Purchase.  In 1838 Iowa was separated from Wisconsin and became its own territory.

History of the Iowa Case

The facts of the case are these. In Missouri Ralph was the slave of Montgomery. In 1834 Montgomery and Ralph agreed Ralph would go to Dubuque, Iowa to work in the lead mines. He would pay Montgomery $450.00 for his freedom. Ralph did not pay Montgomery as agreed. Montgomery came to Iowa with a Justice of the Peace and apprehended Ralph. A Habeas Corpus action was begun and the entire matter was immediately certified to the Iowa Supreme Court.

At the time, Missouri was a slave state, the Wisconsin territory of which Iowa was part of was not. Montgomery claimed Article IV section 2 of the United States Constitution, that made reference to fugitive slaves, supported his claim.

Iowa Court’s Decision

Chief Justice Mason, in rejecting Montgomery’s claim said, the case “… involves an important question, which may ere long, if unsettled, become an exciting one…” Mason held Ralph was in fact a free man and the Writ of Habeas Corpus was sustained. Mason further wrote, “Property in a slave, cannot exist without the existence of slavery, the prohibition of the latter annihilates the former, and, this being destroyed, he becomes free. When, in seeking to accomplish his object, he (Montgomery) illegally restrains a human being of his liberty, it is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should exert their remedial interposition.”

I am proud to live in a State that, from its very beginning, recognized all human beings are equal before the law.  It is important to remember this as we strive as a nation to continue to implement these principals. While we have made strides, we still have a long way to go. I hope my grandchildren are born into a world that is color blind. I hope for peace. I hope for civility. I hope for understanding.