Monday, October 1, 2012

No Patents for Slaves

While browsing through some digitized documents on the National Archives website yesterday, I came across the above letter.

I still don't quite know what to make of it, and I wish there had been other accompanying documents to help enlighten us about the situation, and help contextualize and corroborate, but alas, we have only what we have.

The letter reads as follows:

Attorney General's Office
June 10, 1858

I fully concur with the Commissioner of Patents in the opinion he has given on the application of W. O. J. E. Stewart of Mississippi. For the reasons given by the Commissioner, I think as he does, that a machine invented by a slave, though it be new and useful, cannot, in the present state of the law, be patented. I may add that, if such a patent were issued to the Master, it would not protect him in the courts against persons who might infringe it.
Very respectfully
yours &c
J. S. Black 

In "sourcing" this document the first thing that strikes me is the date, especially as it relates to what information the letter contains. The Dred Scott Decision, which basically said that African Americans were not citizens and therefore did not have rights, was handed down by the Supreme Court the year before this letter was written. So, it makes sense that a patent wouldn't be issued to slave.

Continuing sourcing, I would be interested in finding out more about J.S. Black. Where he was from and his politics would be of particular interest. A quick search shows that Jeremiah S. Black was President James Buchanan's Attorney General from 1857-1860 and then the president's Secretary of State from 1860 to 1861. He was also a conservative from Pennsylvania that opposed Congressional Reconstruction after the Civil War. Being attorney general, Black was well aware of the Dred Scott Decision, and based on his post war sentiments, probably fully agreed fully with that ruling.

I would like to know who W. O. J. E. Stewart is. Is he the master of the slave mentioned at the end of the letter? I doubt that Stewart is the slave who produced the invention. I think probably the master made application on behalf of his slave. But, what was this invention that was "new and useful?"

The last sentence of the letter is especially confusing. When it says ". . . it would not protect him in the courts against persons who might infringe it," does "him" mean Stewart of the slave inventor? Surely it must mean Stewart, but the way it is written I'm not certain.

Maybe a little more searching at the National Archives would answer some of these questions; regardless, it is an intriguing letter that gives us some - although limited - insight into race and society in 1858.


  1. Wow, Tim. Amazing what you have found.


  2. Phyllis J. Powers, EsquireDecember 20, 2012 at 10:14 PM

    I think the 1858 Attorney General reply letter indicates that the slave invention was being considered for patenting and since the slave was not recognized as a USA citizen, no patent could be issued. Seems very plain (at least to me also) that the the Attorney General was replying to Steward's unknown slave master because Steward's slave master submitted a patent application for Steward to protect Steward's unspecified invention.

  3. Is there a way that you could tell me where on the Nat'l Archives you found this document?

  4. Found the link: