Austin v. The State

Slaves in the United States had no legal rights and only limited access to legal protection, so few legal cases in antebellum Arkansas involved African Americans. Even fewer of those cases were ever reviewed by the Arkansas Supreme Court. However, a case in 1854 established a new principle for Arkansas courts that allowed slave owners to testify in criminal cases involving their own slaves. The murder trial of Austin, a slave in Independence County, was appealed to the state’s high court on several procedural issues, one of which was the denial of his owner’s testimony. The court found that such testimony must be permitted, thus throwing out the circuit court’s decision and ordering a new trial.

The event that led to this legal decision was a dispute on August 2 and 3, 1853, between Austin and his master, Benjamin Watson, in Fair View (Independence County), a settlement nineteen miles south of Batesville (Independence County). During an angry conversation between the two, Austin “talked improperly” to his master and apparently refused his master’s orders. After a tense night, Watson said Austin would be whipped for disobedience, but Austin warned that he would not accept the punishment. When a group of men from the area gathered to subdue the slave, Hiram Payne, Watson’s business partner, struck Austin with a stick, and Austin responded with an ax blow to Payne’s head; Payne died three days later. In September, Austin was tried in circuit court in Batesville, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death.

Austin’s defense counsel was Hulbert Fairchild, a Batesville lawyer who later became probate court chancellor in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and a state Supreme Court justice. Fairchild appealed the circuit court decision to the state Supreme Court, citing procedural errors by the judge. The court agreed to review the case, and Fairchild prepared a brief. The state attorney general wrote a rejoinder, and the court heard the arguments in January 1854. The court’s opinion was written by the chief justice, George C. Watkins from Camden (Ouachita County).

The six “bills of exception” offered by Austin’s defense were quickly reduced to the primary question (which was likely the major reason for the court’s willingness to review the case): Was the barring of the testimony of the slave’s owner supported by the state constitution and in the cause of justice? The opinion noted that, in this case, the issue was tied directly to the question of whether the charge should be manslaughter or murder, and therefore to the “motive of the heart” of the perpetrator. Since only Austin and his owner were privy to the argument between them, the judges concluded that Watson should have been permitted to clarify the dispute and the slave’s intentions. At the same time, the opinion supported another path the prosecution might take: that Austin was a slave in “rebellion” and therefore had no right to protest against any discipline “to bring him within the pale of subordination.” The problem was that “rebellion” was undefined, and there was little legal guidance on how the courts could determine its presence.

The opinion upheld the principle of a slave owner being able to testify in cases involving his slaves, but it did not offer or suggest clarification. In a legal study of the Arkansas Supreme Court’s cases dealing with slavery, L. Scott Stafford pointed out the conceptual tension that dominated the court’s considerations: slave-as-property versus slave-as-human-being. In Austin’s case, he concluded, the court supported the rebellion argument “because in that context subordinating a slave to his owner outweighed recognizing the humanity of the slave.”

The outcome of the appeal was that the court threw out the circuit court’s decision and ordered a new trial that would allow Watson’s testimony. The second circuit court trial took place in Smithville (Lawrence County) in May 1854. The verdict of guilty of murder and the sentence of death were the same as before. The opinion gives no indication that the state Supreme Court had any clearer understanding of the causes than did the first trial’s participants, and records of the all-important testimony of Watson are missing.

One 2015 study of this case sought an explanation of the cause by examining the Independence County public records that listed Watson’s purchases and sales of land and slaves. The evidence suggests that Watson was near bankruptcy when the incident with Austin took place, and the researcher suggested that the missing testimony was about the transfer of Austin and his family to a new owner because of their role as collateral in business transactions. If that speculation is correct, it might help explain why the Supreme Court did not pursue the dispute in its considerations. If the justices had wished to use Austin as a way to raise the issue of the wisdom of using slaves as collateral for loans, the case might have become much more important legally than it was. As it turned out, the Austin case proved to be of little lasting importance, as it occurred only a decade before the end of slavery.

Just as the records of the final trial do not document Watson’s testimony, there is no official statement of Austin’s execution. He was sentenced to be hanged at “some convenient or situate place” on June 9, 1854. It is presumed that it happened near Smithville, with the customary unmarked grave, but there is no documentation in the surviving Lawrence County records.

For additional information:
Lankford, George E. “Austin’s Secret: An Arkansas Slave at the Supreme Court.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 74 (Spring 2015): 56–73.

Martin, Bonnie. “Slavery’s Invisible Engine: Mortgaging Human Property.” Journal of Southern History 76 (November 2010): 817–866.

Stafford, L. Scott. “Slavery and the Arkansas Supreme Court.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 19 (Spring 1997): 424–439.

George E. Lankford
Batesville, Arkansas


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