Stuart described the invention as "double cotton scraper, in front of which is attached two ploughs, to run in the spaced between the ridges." It enabled one man and two horses to do a task that otherwise required the labor of four men and four horses. If as master he could qualify for a patent on this invention by his slave, Stuart would submit a model of the machine and the documentary evidence required by the Patent Office.1

      Within two weeks of Stuartís writing, Secretary Thompson decided to submit the question to Attorney General Black for an opinion on the point of law requiring the inventorís oath, a point that Thompson found embarrassing in Stuartís case. This step availed nothing. By late September Thompson had to inform Stuart that the attorney general would not address himself to an abstract question and would offer an opinion only when Stuart made actual application to the Patent Office.2

      By early December Stuartís official application had reached Commissioner of Patents Holt and elicited some Patent Office responses. Holt suggested that Secretary Thompson seek from the attorney general an opinion judging the merits of this application against the patent legislation of July 4, 1836. That legislation required with evidence of an invention the oath of the inventor, who alone could testify to the origins and history of his invention. Holt, a Kentuckian who had, coincidentally, practiced law for several years in Mississippi, believed that the incompetence of a slave to take an oath and to receive a patent constituted a casus omissus that new legislation alone could supply. For this reason he urged the Congress in his annual report for 1857 to modify the law that by denying a slave the right to an oath also denied him a patent and the right to transfer his interest to others.3

      Though the attorney general allowed six more months to pass rendering his official opinion, the Mississippi lawyer shortly fired off several opinions of his own to Secretary Thompson. In a letter written one month following his application for patent, Stuart poured forth his outrage at the Washington bureaucracy and the restraints of patent law, together with several pungent comments on the proper relationships of slaves and masters.4 The letter reveals a man far more accustomed to a world where slaves responded upon command than to an emerging technological order where the disinterest of legal detail and bureaucratic practice proved to be dominant realities.


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June 2001