Tuesday, October 2, 2012

No Patents for Slaves - And now, the Rest of the Story

In my last post I had many questions about the primary source I shared. Little did I know that almost all of those questions were answered some 30 years ago. It was brought to my attention by a kind reader that there was quite a bit of scholarship in this specific incident that was available online.

One of these articles was published in the Spring 1980 issue of Prologue magazine, which has been offered by the National Archives for the past 40 years. This article, written by Norman O. Forness, fully explains the slave patent situation.

I quickly realized the letter I shared yesterday had some errors or misinterpretations. That letter referenced a Stewart, who turned out to be planter Colonel Oscar J. E. Stuart a prominent lawyer from Pike County, Mississippi. In 1857 Stuart had written to fellow Mississippian Jacob Thompson, the Secretary of the Interior (pictured above), asking about the possibility of getting a patent for a special plow that Ned, one of his slaves, had invented. Other documents at the National Archives indicate that Stuart understood and acknowledged that the patent laws required that to receive a patent the inventor had to swear that he had conceived the idea. Since Ned had invented the plow, Stuart could not do this honorably. Stuart argued that since he owned Ned, he also owned Ned's labor and ideas. Stuart therefore wanted the patent issued to himself "as master of the slave-inventor."

Thompson was head of the Department of the Interior, which included Patent Office branch. He referred Stuart's letter to Attorney General Jeremiah Black who did not respond immediately. Thompson responded to Stuart that a patent application had be filed before a ruling could be made.

Stuart filed an official application which reached Commissioner of Patents and Kentuckian Joseph Holt (pictured above in middle). Holt basically rejected the application since the inventor, Ned, could not swear an affidavit that he had invented the plow as Ned was a slave and therefore not a citizen. Stuart was disgruntled and thinking he could get more done through fellow Mississippian Thompson, attempted to go over Holt's head. Thompson referred the matter to Attorney General Black, who after a long delay eventually made the ruling shown in the letter shared in yesterday's post.

Naturally, Stuart was not pleased with the final ruling and attempted to get the patent legislation changed via his Mississippi representatives, however when that didn't work either, Stuart began making the slave invented plows without a patent and selling them for $40.00 each.

Another article, this one published in The Journal of Negro History in the Winter edition of 1984 (pages 48-52, accessible on JSTOR) provides even more documentation on this fascinating case. Included in this article was the letter that Stuart wrote to Senator John A. Quitman, a former governor of Mississippi and filibuster organizer, attempting to get the patent law changed. This letter describes Ned's plow and how it works.

Also intriguing is an endorsement letter by another former Mississippi governor Albert G. Brown. Brown touted the superiority of the slave invented plow over its nearest competitors. He closed his glowing recommendation for the product by stating "I am glad to know that your implement is the invention of a negro slave - thus giving the lie to the abolitionist cry that slavery dwarfs the mind of the negro. When did a free negro invent anything?"

Even more documentation on Stuart is held at Mississippi Department of Archives and History in the Stuart Family Papers. Their description of the papers indicate that two of Stuart's son's died fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War and that Stuart moved to Kentucky in 1871 to "escape the excesses of Reconstruction in Mississippi."

I am so happy to find out this information and to be able to share it here. Thanks Mom!  

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress


  1. Thanks for the follow-up.

    N. Kemp

  2. I second that, thanks for the follow up.

  3. There was a patent filed in England signed by the King for Kidnap abduction and sale