(16 Aug 1813 - 16 Oct 1863)
John Dean, “Zealous Foe of Slave Hunters” did not assist slaves to escape on the Underground Railroad. But, like those who did, he put his career and life at risk assisting freedom seekers. John Dean used his skills as an attorney to test the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and to represent fugitive slaves and argue their cases in an attempt to prevent their return to the persons who claimed them. In 1862 he also assumed responsibility for a contraband, Joseph Brooks, and sent him to his family in New York where Joseph could find work and receive a basic education. John Dean is interred in Congressional Cemetery, Range 83 Site 181 (unmarked – see cemetery records).
John Dean was born at Deansboro, Oneida County, New York, the son and grandson of men who dedicated their lives to educating and securing the rights of the Native Americans in the area. John graduated from Hamilton College, Clinton, NY in 1832, practiced law and was elected as a Democrat to the New York State legislature where he served from 1847 to 1848.
John moved his law practice to New York City in 1850. The following year he opened a second office in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn where, in addition to his private practice, he served as corporation counsel. As early as 1852 he began associating with anti-slavery advocates such as Henry Ward Beecher, minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. By 1856 he was president of the Republican organization for the Eastern District of Brooklyn.
By the time he arrived, the city had become a center for runaways hoping to hide among the many free blacks and the rapidly increasing number of contrabands. The city was overrun with slave-catchers who were relentless in their pursuit of freedom-seekers. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required that runaway slaves captured in another State be returned to their owners. The law was not overturned until 1864, and the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 and later the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves living in or fleeing from States “in rebellion”. Those acts and the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slaveholders in Maryland which remained “loyal” to the union. Using the argument that the District and Territories were not States, the newspapers regularly criticized the District's Circuit Court for continuing to hear fugitive slave cases. But, the pro-slavery Court maintained that the Law did apply and most often ordered that captured runaways be returned to their Maryland owners.
Shortly after arriving in D.C., Dean reported to his wife: “I have been utterly confounded at the extent of the pro-slavery feeling here both in and outside of the government. But I think the institution is doomed in spite of the government.” He was so troubled by an incident he witnessed soon after his arrival that he had the following account published in the National Republican.
Slavery in its Dying Agonies
An affecting scene occurred at No. 424 Fifteenth street, on Tuesday. Edith Duval, a fine colored girl, the property of Mr. ___, had lived a long time in the family and both herself and the family have been fearful that her owner would take her out of the District, before the emancipation bill became a law. This fear was such upon the poor girl that she, with great reluctance, waited on the door. On Tuesday, on waiting on the door she saw her master, and the sad truth was revealed to the family, that she was to be forced away, by the loud shrieks and wailings of the girl. She was taken away amid the tears and protestations of the family.
This is probably but one of many similar outrages being now committed in this city.
How much longer shall these outrages upon human nature be permitted under the very shadow of the Capitol?
Dean was admitted to practice before the DC Courts on May 22, 1862 and became involved in a series of fugitive slave cases that, because of the interest of persons on both sides of the slavery issue, were covered extensively by local and national newspapers (see bibliography). The following article appeared in the Liberator and other abolitiionist newspapers throughout the Northeast:
FUGITIVE SLAVE CASES IN WASHINGTON. The Washington Republican says that the examinations of fugitive slave cases before the U.S. Commissioners of that city are carried on in the midst of a crowded and excited Court room.
Hon. John Dean, of Brooklyn, New York, has been employed by a Committee of wealthy and respectable citizens to defend the fugitives and to test the application of the fugitive slave act to the District.
The “wealthy and respectable citizens” mentioned in the article are very likely the managers of the year-old National Freedman's Relief Association of D.C. Dean's friend, John C. Underwood, was at the time President of the Association which in 1863 had set aside $200 in its budget for the defense of fugitive slaves.
On May 22, 1862, John Dean appeared before the Commissioners of the Fugitive Slave Law arguing on behalf of Stephen (last name unknown) claimed by Charles H. Hill of Prince George's County. He demanded, among other things, that the Commissioners allow testimony regarding the loyalty of the claimant. But, the commissioners refused and the claimant's witnesses could only be cross-examined as to ownership and identify of the slave. Stephen was ordered returned to his owner. The National Republican reporter noted that before leaving the court room:
Mr. Dean then went to Messrs. Hill, and said that he had a request to make of the owners of the “chattel,” as a special favor to himself. “I have undertaken this case merely to test certain points of law. I did not do it at the solicitation of the fugitive, and he is not to blame for any trouble which my acts have given you. I therefore ask that you will not whip this man; I beg of you not to do it.” Mr. Hill replied savagely, “That is my business, and not yours!” and grasping his slave the “master” bore off his “property” in triumph.
At the conclusion of the Stephen case, the commissioners were preparing to hear the cases of Wilson Copeland and Arthur Johnson. Both men were in uniform and had been working for the 76th New York Regiment which was determined to protect them. Copeland had run away from the plantation of Ignatius H. Waters of Brookville, Md. He was captured when slave-catchers presented writs to the officers of the regiment ordering his and Johnson's commitment under the fugitive slave law. Dean argued that the process of recovering a fugitive slave did not apply to men in government service. At the conclusion of the day in court the reporter noted:
On our way out we saw any amount of ominous shaking of heads and brawny fists, and other outward manifestations of disapproval of the part Mr. D. took in the matter. Epithets and curses, “not loud, but deep,” were heard on all sides. “D—d abolitionist;” “Every d—d abolitionist ought to have his throat cut;” “I'd like to stuff all the niggers down their d—d throats;”
That night Dean wrote to his wife, “. . . for the Court is against me. It is like picking against a stone wall. But I shall tomorrow call all of my powers of logic and of law to bear upon the Court.” Dean prepared a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and on May 30th continued his argument that the Fugitive Slave Law did not apply to the District and the Territories. In a lengthy decision, the Court asserted that the Fugitive Slave Law did apply to the District and refused the writ. Copeland was returned to the claimant.
At the same time that Copeland and Johnson were captured, Alethia Lynch, who had been working in Washington (one newspaper reported that she was Gen. Wadsworth's cook), was claimed by Barbara Allnutt of Montgomery County and committed to jail by the commissioners of the fugitive slave law. This arrest precipitated a crisis between the civil and military authorities. After obtaining testimony questioning the loyalty of Barbara Allnutt and under orders from military governor Gen. Wadsworth, the provost guard went to the jail on May 23rd, demanding the release of Alethia Lynch. The jailer refused to obey the order until such time as he was directed by federal Marshal Ward Lamon. The Provost Guard took Alethia by force and before the evening was over had placed the deputy marshal, the jailer and Mrs. Allnutt's attorneys under arrest. In company with Marshal Lamon, the police then arrested the military sergeant who had been left to guard the jail. By morning all parties had been released and Alethia remained free. John Dean described his role in the incident as follows:
“This a.m. I suppose I astonished the people (on the streets I traversed) by having in my carriage a black girl whose pass & protection I sought for her from Genl. Wadsworth, Provost Marshal. She is owned in Maryland but free by the Act of Congress, yet her owner wants to get her out of the District into bondage . . . I gave her the Certificate of protection from the Genl. & she went forth with tears of joy on her ebony cheeks walking boldly home to her rightful employer.”
Next, Dean took up the case of Caroline Slater, a slave who, like Alethia Lynch, had, with her owner's consent, lived and worked in Washington for many years. Under those circumstances, Caroline became a free woman when the DC Emancipation Act took effect on April 16, 1862. Dean wrote of the case:
“In my efforts to do good I find myself exposed oft times to insult and contumely. Day before yesterday I was turned out by Comr. [Samuel] Philips office in the case of Caroline Slater (claimed as a fugitive slave) who was a free woman, under circumstances strongly inducing me to knock the man down & clear his office. But I thought of you & my own ones & I controlled my temper & walking to the barouche wherein my witness was: told her (she was a lady) she need not fear any collision, that I would send for her again to be there yesterday at 4 p.m. Philips told the colored driver “to clear out.” I told him (the lady friend being in the barouche) to await my orders. Philips went into the back office to get his cane & came out & said he would break my head etc. etc.”
On the advice of his attorney, Caroline's former owner dropped the case.
On June 23, 1862 John Dean first encountered the Duvall family of Prince George's Co., Maryland. Dean appeared as counsel for John and William Jackson, claimed by Dennis Duvall. Joseph Bradley, a prominent Washington lawyer appeared for Duvall. Dean again attempted to make the loyalty of the claimant an issue, but the court disallowed the question and an altercation between the two attorneys was narrowly avoided. Dean wrote of the confrontation:
“Today have been engaged in the Circuit Court in fugitive slave cases. Very exciting both court audience & bar. I was ordered to sit down or would be put under arrest without any joint cause: Bradley to whom I was opposed came up to me & sought a personal altercation: the Marshall stepped between me & him. But the Marshall faced me & not Bradley: I was as cool as a cucumber. After about 2 hours trial the two poor boys “sons of Africa” were rendered up to slavery in Prince Geo. Co., Maryland. The tears that rolled down their black cheeks yesterday when I first found them in this Marshall's office brought tears to my eyes. And when I enquired about as to the cause of their weeping was gruffly answered by the claimant that it was none of my business. I told the claimant I would make it my business. And thus today we disposed of the exciting case and I bade the brothers goodbye.“
When not defending fugitive slaves and lobbying for a position in the Treasury Dept. John spent much of his time visiting the hospitals to comfort sick and wounded soldiers from the New York regiments. He also began attending meetings of the National Freedman's Relief Assn. (NFRA) and visiting the contrabands housed in Duff Green's Row.
In addition to obtaining food, clothes, and medical services for the growing number of contrabands, the NFRA sought opportunities to move the contrabands out of the crowded conditions in D.C. In July, Dean sponsored a contraband, Joseph Brooks, and sent him to his wife in New York. He gave instructions that he was to be hired out as a farm hand, and she was to teach him how to manage his wages. Dean also wrote “I also want him to learn to read & write. He will make a good scholar.”
Dean's efforts to obtain a position in the Treasury Department finally paid off, and he was sworn in on June 18, 1862 to a position in the Office of Commissioner for Customs. From that time until the following spring it appears his job kept him occupied, and he was not mentioned in connection with any more fugitive slave cases. However, he continued to visit the military hospitals and took an active part in both the black and white committees lobbying for the creation of a regiment of colored troops.
During this time Dean wrote to his wife that he was deliberately kept busy at the Treasury Department so as to make it difficult for him to become involved in activities outside of the Department. But, he began working late into the evenings to keep his desk clear of case. In March 1863 he campaigned unsuccessfully for promotion to 5th Auditor after John C. Underwood was appointed Judge of the Eastern District of Virginia. Then in May 1863, Dean became involved in the last major fugitive slave case in the District of Columbia and the first major case heard before the newly established Supreme Court of DC.
He was again facing the contentious Duvall family and their attorneys, Joseph Bradley and Walter Cox. On May 4, 1863 he drafted a petition for Daniel Breed on behalf of the numerous fugitive slaves being held in the jail. On May 6 he wrote to his family's long-time housekeeper describing the situation:
“. . . been arguing before Supreme Court this forenoon for the blacks, insisting on the Court's hearing my motion to dismiss the warrant of arrest in this case. Court declined to act in that case in that manner but agreed to hear Argument if I would bring up a case on Habeas Corpus. I am going to try to find one. There are warrants out vs. about 200 fugitives. I am going to hunt up a case contest to question. The bar and the pro-slavery folks & slave catchers are again all in a rage at me etc. . . . I send you list of persons claiming slaves & their names in the Clerks office, but in the Commissioners hands there are many other warrants I can't see. Perhaps Joseph will know some one.“
“I have been engaged Saturday, Monday & Tuesday in the argument of the Habeas Corpus case of Andrew Hall claimed by Geo. W. Duvall. I spoke 3 hours on Saturday and closed on Tuesday in two hours. The opposing counsel occupied Monday. I send you my peroration as near as I can recollect it. After alluding to the fact that both history & the Bible taught us not to despise the day of small things illustrating it by historical instances of apparently trivial causes producing immense results thus now “we are looking on high for some sign or manifestation of deliverance.” We are looking for some great Captains or Chieftains who by his mighty genius may work out our deliverance and save the country. We are waiting for a great victory on the Mississippi. But under the mysterious providence of God the great battle of this war is being fought here in this temple of Justice and over the degraded exiled son of Africa. It is the great battle of freedom of humanity of Justice of Law that we are here this day fighting. We have elsewhere in this contest, bullets and bayonettes on our side, but its absence, its great principle is here presented for victory or for defeat. What vast results hang upon the decisions of the single case! What vast interests cluster around this poor boy.”
The case went on for two weeks and on May 25 Dean wrote to his wife about the insults and threats on his life:
The rage of the Marylanders and proslavery men is at the highest pitch vs. me. I am insulted in the streets by them and they seek every occasion to bring on a collision, but I do not notice them and am not out nights unless some one is with me. The boy Andrew Hall is enlisted. I am however sustained by our radical friends. And if any misfortune in the contest befalls me, you and the dear ones I think will be provided for. . . . Mr. John Jolliffe my associate was paid by Mr. Underwood a counsel fee. I have received nothing and am out of pocket $8.25 carriage fees & expenses. I suppose it likely I shall be sued by Duvall.
After much debate, the pro-abolitionist judges appointed to the new Supreme Court of D.C. determined that they could not agree on how to proceed. On May 23, Hall was discharged but, on attempting to leave the courtroom, Duvall and his friends made a move to capture the boy and then prevented him from leaving the Court. The Court offered him protection until the police could be sent for. Hall was taken to a nearby police station-house and then to a contraband camp where he was put under military protection. On this day the confrontation between Dean and Duvall consisted only of “hard looks and sharp words.”. On the following day the confrontation between the two became more physical, and Duvall filed charges of assault and battery against Dean and Jolliffe. Both men were indicted on a charge of obstruction of the Fugitive Slave Law.
John C. Underwood arranged bail for Jolliffe and Ward Lewis, well-known colored caterer and landlord of Elizabeth Keckley, offered bail for Dean. Dean wrote to his wife:
“Mr. Bowen has agreed to be my bail. But I am ready for trial and shall demand a trial forthwith. Mr. Jolliffe who was foisted in the concern by Underwood after I had commenced it and who has sought to win the laurels etc. but who is in no sense guilty and never raised his finger to save the boy but is a clever old granny, wants to make huge things out of this indictment against us: wants Gerrit Smith, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, etc. etc. & wants an immense fund raised by subscription and finally wants to make an ass of himself & wants to postpone trial till fall etc. etc.”
The case was expected to be heard in the October term of the Criminal Court, but the case never came to trial. Dean's wife was visiting him in the fall of 1863 when in early October he contracted pneumonia. He died on October 16. District Attorney Carrington announced to the Criminal Court the death of John Dean, Esq., a member of the bar ”in feeling terms, and in respect to his memory, the Court adjourned.” His funeral was from the Unitarian Church, and he was buried in Congressional Cemetery. His pallbearers were his friend, Judge John C. Underwood, colleagues from the Treasury Department and associates from the National Freedman's Relief Association.
One obituary states that John Dean was to be removed to the family ground in Utica, New York. But, in the last few years of his life, Dean was struggling to earn a comfortable living and support his family in the style to which they were accustomed. It appears that his family could not afford the removal. Within a few years Dean's sons, who were unsuccessful in finding jobs in the East, moved the family to Indianapolis, IN. Dean's wife and most of his descendants are buried there. The family papers and letters are now part of the collection of the Indiana Historical Society.