Between 1787 and 1791, the Butler family in Maryland changed the face of activism for enslaved people claiming their freedom by winning over 90 suits filed for their freedom. It paved the way for many enslaved people to seek out loopholes in the laws that kept them enslaved.
According to Lapham’s Quarterly, the Butlers’ unrestricted freedom in Prince George’s County became local folklore. The Butlers’ plight began when Eleanor “Irish Nell” Butler, a white woman, married Charles Calvert, an enslaved African, after arriving in 1681.
Willian Boarman, the owner of the enslaved man and an officer of the provincial militia and an associate of Lord Baltimore, attempted to oppose Eleanor’s marriage to Charles. The colony’s laws — the 1664 Act — stated that if a free woman marries an enslaved person, she will automatically become a slave.
This meant that Eleanor, upon marriage, would be a slave to Boarman until her husband died. This also applied to the children they intend to have. The laws required them to serve their owners until they reached the age of 30. The General Assembly of Charles County used this to discourage free borns from entering into marriages they deemed shameful.
According to historical accounts, Lord Baltimore criticized Eleanor’s marriage even on the day of her wedding, implying that her children would bear an indelible mark for the rest of their lives, putting them at a disadvantage. When Lord Baltimore reminded Eleanor of the consequences of her decision, she is said to have replied, “I’d rather marry an enslaved man and suffer the consequences than be free-born.”
Unsatisfied with the precedent, Lord Baltimore sought to have the 1664 Act repealed in order to exempt Eleanor and Charles from the law’s sanctions, fearing that it would open the door for other enslaved people to marry white women.
Lord Baltimore’s other point of view was that, as the number of enslaved men declined, other slave owners might consider using the laws to have their enslaved men marry white women in order to have more slave children.
In 1681, the Baltimore Assembly repealed the law that freed children born of such mixed marriages. However, this creates a significant loophole that will be exploited by slaves born after the repeal of this law.
Slaveholders who allow mixed marriages between enslaved men and white women face fines of thousands of tobaccos under the new laws. Eleanor and Charles were still bound by the old laws, which had been passed down through generations of slaves on Boarman’s plantations.
However, after careful examination of the laws, Eleanor and Charles’ grandchildren realized that they were not supposed to be in bondage. William and Mary, descendants of Eleanor and Charles, decided to test their claim to liberty in court in 1770. The courts ruled that Mary and William were free of their enslavement obligations and were born free under the law.
The Boarman family argued that the descendants of Eleanor and Charles were property and that no one could be denied their rightful property by law. The provincial court judges initially ruled in favor of liberty, releasing William and Mary Butler from their enslavement. The high courts overturned the lower court’s decision and changed Mary and William’s status as slaves.
Following the American Revolution, the next generation of Butlers resurrected the legal claim to their liberties. Mary Butler, 26, dragged Adam Craig to court in order to obtain her freedom. Other families, such as the Toogoods, joined the suit to stake their own claim to liberty. Eleanor Toogood went to court in October 1782 to challenge her enslavement under Dr. Upton Scott, a well-known physician in Annapolis.
The landmark cases of Mary Butler and others brought them freedom. The courts have granted freedom to every Butler who has been held captive since October 1971.