The Butler family in Maryland changed the face of activism for the enslaved people claiming their freedom by winning over 90 suits filed for their freedom between 1787 and 1791. It opened the floodgates for many enslaved people to explore the loopholes in the laws that kept them in captivity.
According to Lapham’s Quarterly, the unfettered freedom enjoyed by the Butlers in Prince George’s County became local folklore. The plight of the Butlers began when Eleanor “Irish Nell” Butler, a white woman, decided to marry Charles Calvert, an enslaved African, after she arrived in 1681.
The owner of the enslaved man, Willian Boarman, who was an officer of the provincial militia and an associate of Lord Baltimore, tried to oppose Eleanor’s marriage to Charles. The laws of the colony — the 1664 Act — mandated that a free woman will automatically become a slave once she marries an enslaved person.
This meant Eleanor upon marriage will serve Boarman as a slave till the passing away of her husband. This also applied to the children that they will give birth to. The laws required them to serve their owners until they turned 30. This was employed by the General Assembly of Charles County to dissuade free borns from entering into marriages they described as shameful matches.
Historical accounts indicate that Lord Baltimore criticized Eleanor’s union even on the day of her wedding suggesting that her children will carry an indelible mark all the days of their life which will make them disadvantaged. When Lord Baltimore reminded Eleanor of the repercussions of her decision, she is reported to have told the Lord that she would rather marry an enslaved man and endure the consequences than be free-born.
Unhappy with the precedent, Lord Baltimore took steps to have the 1664 Act repealed to absolve Eleanor and Charles from the sanctions that comes with the law because he perceived it as opening the floodgates for other enslaved people to enter into marriages with white women.
Lord Baltimore’s other position was that other slave owners might explore the laws to have their enslaved men married to white women to acquire more slave children since the number of enslaved men was on a gradual decline.
The Baltimore Assembly repealed the law making children born out of such mixed marriages free from captivity in 1681. But, this will open a major loophole to be exploited by slaves born after the repeal of this law.
The new laws passed placed penalties of thousands of tobaccos on slaveholders who allow mixed marriages between enslaved men and white women. Eleanor and Charles were still bonded by the old laws and transcended to their generations who were passed on as enslaved in Boarman’s plantations.
However, upon in-depth observation of the laws, the grandchildren of Eleanor and Charles realized that they were not supposed to be in bondage. In 1770, William and Mary, descendants of Eleanor and Charles, decided to test their claim to freedom in court. The courts ruled that Mary and William were free of their obligations as enslaved and were free-born by law.
This was challenged by the Boarman family who argued that the descendants of Eleanor and Charles were property and someone cannot be denied their rightful property by law. The judges of the provincial court initially ruled in favor of freedom and ordered William and Mary Butler discharged from their enslavement. The high courts reversed the lower court’s judgment and revised the status of Mary and William as slaves.
The next generation of Butlers revived the legal claim to their freedoms after the American Revolution. Adam Craig was dragged to court by 26-year-old Mary Butler in demand of her freedom. There were other families like the Toogoods who joined the suit to make their own claim to freedom. Eleanor Toogood challenged her enslavement under Dr. Upton Scott, a notable physician in Annapolis, in court in October 1782.
Mary Butler and the others’ landmark cases brought freedom to themselves. Since October 1971, every Butler who was in captivity was granted their freedom by the courts.