In re Case of Clark

1 Blackf. 122 (Ind. 1821)



When the law will not directly coerce a specific performance, it will not leave a party to exercise the law of the strong, and coerce it in his own behalf. A state of servitude thus produced, either by direct or permissive coercion, will not be considered voluntary either in fact or in law. It presents a case where legal intendment can have no operation.


Appellant, a free woman of color, applied for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that she was illegally detained as the servant of appellee master under a contract by which the woman voluntarily bound herself to serve the master as an indentured servant and housemaid for 20 years. The woman appealed from a judgment of the Circuit Court remanding her to the custody of the master. The Supreme Court reversed the circuit court's judgment and discharged the woman.


Should appellant's service be considered voluntary by operation of law, being performed under an indenture voluntarily executed?




The court held that (1) Ind. Const. art. XI, § 7, provided that any indenture executed by a person of color out of the State of Indiana was absolutely void, but because all state citizens possessed equal right and ability to contract, without any reference to the color of the contracting parties, contracts executed within the state were constitutionally valid; (2) the contract was a covenant for personal service and the master, as the obligee, required a specific performance; (3) with limited exceptions, neither the common law nor state statutes recognized judicial coercion of a specific performance of contracts; (4) the master did not apply for specific performance, but he asked that judicial assistance be withheld from the woman; (5) while the woman remained in the master's service without complaint, the law presumed that her service was voluntary, however, her application to be discharged established the fact that she was willing to serve no longer, and the law could not presume that her service was voluntary; and (6) the woman was in a state of involuntary servitude and the court was bound by constitutional law to discharge her from it.

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