Possibly Stuartís anger with Holt betrayed a deeper discontent - his frustration for not knowing with certainty the full range of a bright slaveís activities. Withholding at first any expression of his unsureness, he attacked Holt because the commissioner refused to decide the case on the single issue of the inventionís merit and because, in Stuartís opinion, he obfuscated the issue by focusing on the inventor. Though Stuart accused Holt of proceeding erroneously, that is, as though Ned had applied for the patent, he apparently lacked the conviction that this had not actually happened. Such an uncertainty may explain one of his concluding statements, that "if the slave has ever had any correspondence with his [Holtís] bureau upon the subject, I am ignorant of it, and for such impertinence, you know according to our Southern usage, I would correct him."

      Unable to gain a patent because of the letter of the law, the commissionerís "monstrous conclusion," and Nedís possible impertinence, Stuart could do no more than appeal to a tradition of honor that he hoped to find in Secretary Thompson. "I address you," because you are a Mississippian, and a Southern man Ė and besides you have an official supervision over the Commissioner of Patents." Thompson, however honorable, could do not more than submit the case to the attorney general and inform Senator Brown of the departmentís actions in behalf of his constituents.5

      Ultimately, the attorney general vindicated the position of the commissioner of patents. In an opinion addressed to Jacob Thompson on June 10, 1858, Jeremiah Black concluded that "a machine invented by a slave, though it be new and useful, cannot, in the present state of the law, be patented. I may add that, if such a patent were issued to the Master, it would not protect him in the courts against persons who might infringe it."6 Blackís elucidation bluntly asserted that if patent law recognized only free citizens as inventors, it did not thereby subsume, as in Stuartís logic, that masters could lay exclusive claim to the inventive achievements of their slaves. Of slavery, patent law took no cognizance.


<back to previous page


go to next page>


cologo3.gif (6014 bytes)

June 2001