Missouri Digital Heritage :: Education :: Before Dred Scott :: Ralph v. Coleman Duncan

Before Dred Scott:
Freedom Suits in Antebellum Missouri

Ralph, a man of color v. Coleman Duncan (1833)

Ralph sued Coleman Duncan for his freedom in St. Louis in May 1830. Ralph claimed that living and working in the free state of Illinois had made him a free man. The St. Louis Circuit Court denied his petition for freedom. The court said Ralph did not prove that Coleman Duncan gave permission for Ralph to live and work in Illinois.

Ralph appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1833. The Supreme Court judges said that the 1824 precedent, "once free, always free," applied in his case. They overturned the St. Louis Circuit Court decision. Ralph was free.

To win his freedom, Ralph had to file a petition for freedom, listing all the reasons he thought he should be free. These reasons were based on the fact that Ralph had lived in a state where slavery was against the law, according to the 1818 Illinois Constitution.

Ralph also filed a charge of trespass of false imprisonment. This was a declaration explaining that the plaintiff (Ralph) was a free person being illegally held in slavery. All charge of trespass papers included pro forma claims of physical abuse. Ralph's suit was no different. It claimed that Coleman Duncan "...beat, bruised and ill treated him..." Since these claims were included as part of the model for a charge of trespass, it is impossible to know if Ralph suffered these exact claims.