In re Clark

US Contract Law

re Clark
‘The Cotton Pickers’ by Winslow Homer

The coercion of specific performance can be compelling to most contractual arrangements, however, when the agreement is one based upon involuntary servitude, the law will not assist those seeking to enforce it, despite which guise is chosen. 

In 1821 a negro woman by the name of Mary Clark filed a writ of habeas corpus to the Knox Circuit Court, on grounds that she was being unlawfully detained under a written indenture dated 1816, and one deemed effective for a period of twenty years.

Having viewed the construction of the contract, the court held it sufficient enough to bind upon both parties,  upon which the woman appealed before the Supreme Court of Indiana, who reexamined the validity of the agreement within the context of its construction.

As was known at the time, indentures were typically drafted to observe compliance with prescribed rules of conduct between a master and his apprentice, which by definition was a relationship founded upon obedience through transferred parental authority or loco parentis.

However at the execution of this particular indenture, both parties were of sufficient maturity to rescind the agreement should it no longer serve mutual interests, and so it was claimed that the arrangement was not one voluntarily executed, but instead by way of enslavement.

With consideration of numerous forms of contracts, including dispositions of land, the court was moved to stress that inequality arising from any notion that the legal system would assist in the enforcement of an agreement designed to impute inferiority between one person and another, was both unconstitutional and inhumane in equal measure, and so in holding the contract void, the court reminded the parties that:

Deplorable indeed would be the state of society, if the obligee in every contract had a right to seize the person of the obligor, and force him to comply with his undertaking. In contracts for personal service, the exercise of such a right would be most alarming in its consequences….”

While discharging the appellant from her alleged contractual obligations on grounds that:

“[W]hen 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.”

Before reversing the circuit court judgment in full and awarding costs in favour of the appellant, and now lawfully free woman.

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Author, publisher and foodie...

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