To Own Life and Death: The Boundaries of Race and Mastery

By Matthew C. Hulbert

Early one evening in May 1859, an inebriated Jesse Williams handed one of his slaves—a young man named Wesley—a loaded musket. Williams commanded Wesley to take the weapon, under cover of darkness, and with it to assassinate Edmund Stevens. In other words, Williams instructed his African American slave to take a weapon he wasn’t legally allowed to possess and gun down a white neighbor in cold blood. Williams and Stevens had apparently been feuding for years. Now, sufficiently fortified by liquor and desperation, Jesse aimed to end their dispute once and for all.

This scenario constituted the ultimate “lose-lose” for a slave like Wesley. On one hand, if he obeyed Williams, it would mean committing murder and virtually guaranteeing himself a date with the hangman. On the other, if Wesley refused to heed his obviously deranged master’s word, it would mean, at the very least, a severe beating—and given Williams’s current states of mind and intoxication, possibly much, much worse. So with no good options laid before him, Wesley took the gun and half-heartedly trudged off to the Stevens farm.

Later that same night, Wesley returned home with the gun bearing its original load. Williams, still quite drunk and now irate, demanded an explanation; when he told a slave to do something, he expected results. Murder was no exception. But according to Wesley, it wasn’t his fault. He’d been thwarted by Stevens’s dog—the animal barked whenever Wesley got too close, so it had been impossible to sneak into range. Undeterred, Williams sent his would-be assassin back into the night, this time with a small cache of poison to silence the dog. Minus the barking, Wesley could presumably finish off Stevens. And if Wesley failed again, Williams promised “to cut his back all to pieces.”

Wesley did fail again. And as court documents later revealed, he’d failed many times before: the dog was just one item from a long list of excuses concocted to avoid murdering Stevens. Wesley harbored no animus against Stevens and had even less interest in committing murder on Williams’s behalf. In fact, on more than one occasion, Wesley never even left the Williams farm; he simply hid in the nearby woods and reported back to his master in the morning, as if he’d gone out after Stevens but a clear shot had never materialized.

Even when sober, Williams wasn’t particularly bright. (And as witnesses later told it, he wasn’t sober all that often.) But eventually even he caught on to Wesley’s stalling. So one day, as he prepared to “hunt” Stevens alone, Wesley must have been disheartened to learn that Williams would be tagging along as field supervisor. Together, the pair snuck within range of Stevens and, with an insistent Williams looking over his shoulder, Wesley pulled the trigger. The projectile found its mark. Edmund Stevens fell dead in his tracks.

wesley indictmentGiven his ongoing strife with Stevens, Williams was the prime suspect, but he had a built in scapegoat: he hadn’t technically killed Stevens. Rather, it was his slave, Wesley, who’d pulled the trigger and should be legally held responsible for the deed. Not surprisingly, Williams banked on the fact that investigators would inherently take the word of a white slaveowner over that of a slave, let alone one accused of backshooting a white man. Even less surprising, Williams neglected to mention that he’d commanded Wesley to commit the crime on numerous occasions. Not long after the shooting, Williams died—almost certainly the result of his drinking. So Wesley was forced to stand trial alone, and a jury convicted him of Stevens’s murder.

This is the point in Wesley’s story where things get a little complicated. Williams, as a white, male slaveholder, had literally owned Wesley. As his owner’s human property, Wesley was technically bound to follow orders or suffer terrible—even mortal—consequences. Unity between white slaveholders and white non-slaveholders played a major role in imbuing the institution of slavery with this absolute, race-based authority. In other words, Williams, Stevens, and even the men investigating the crime were all supposed to be complicit in maintaining the color line that justified mastery over commoditized (black) human beings. But Williams broke from that protocol when he exercised the absolute authority granted him by the institution of slavery and wielded it against a member of the very community vital to maintaining the institution in the first place. More simply put, Williams overextended his ownership of the life and death of a black slave by also making a claim on the life and death of a free white man.

wesley forced

“That he done it under the eye of his master and under the fear that he would be killed himself or great Bodily harm would be done him, if he failed or refused to obey the command of his master.”

Following his conviction, Wesley was condemned to death. A petition offered on his behalf to Governor Beriah Magoffin argued that Wesley should be spared the gallows because Williams had both owned him and ordered him to assassinate Stevens. Even Williams’s supporters, few as they might have been, couldn’t discount the fact that two, distinct sets of footprints were found at the scene of the crime. Interestingly, though, the petitioners did not seek a full pardon for Wesley—merely that he might escape execution to spend the rest of his life in prison. The request, which Magoffin granted, illustrates how irrevocably interwoven the legal system of Kentucky had become with ideas of race, slavery, and social power. The petitioners (and Magoffin, for that matter), likely still believed that, as a rule, Wesley was duty bound to do as his master commanded. At the same time, though, they were compelled to prevent future instances of white masters using black slaves to assault other white Kentuckians. Not to close this loophole was akin to allowing the color line on which so much of slavery’s power depended to erode from within.

This means that Magoffin had to concede that what Wesley was ordered to do was wrong. By implying that the command had been wrong, the implication was also made that Wesley should have known better, morally speaking, than to obey it—a line of thought that unavoidably called into question Williams’s absolute mastery over his slave property. But even as Magoffin seemed to understand that Wesley—again, as a rule—had no choice but to obey Williams and that Williams’s order had been morally wrong, the governor, who himself owned slaves, couldn’t take that reasoning to its logical conclusion: complete exoneration for Wesley. I.e., no prison time.

wesley commutedWhy not? Because to have consented to the ability of a slave like Wesley to only obey orders he found morally acceptable wouldn’t just have conceded a level of humanity among chattel that many slaveholders found discomforting, it would have utterly undermined a vital defense of the institution of slavery itself. (That is, the idea that slavery was a positive good for African Americans, a people otherwise incapable of thinking for themselves.) And to undermine the institution of slavery would have ultimately threatened the chief enforcement mechanism of a racial hierarchy that elevated white over black in matters social, political, economic, and cultural. With this in mind, to some extent, Wesley didn’t actually go to prison because he was a slave—Wesley went to prison to the preserve the very means of his enslavement.


Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.

SOURCES: W. H. Calvert et al. to Beriah Magoffin, 16 July 1861, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (hereafter KDLA); Edward P. Campbell et al. to Beriah Magoffin, 16 June 1861, KDLA; Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Wesley (a slave), Judgment, 15 June 1861, KDLA.