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The Case of the State Vs. Will

One of the most remarkable cases ever tried in the North Carolina courts was the case of The State vs. Will. It was the most important case on the subject of slavery and fixed a slave’s right to defend himself against the cruel and unjust punishment of a master. It was decided at the December term, 1834, of the Supreme Court (State vs. Will, 1 Devereux and Battle, 121-172). The facts of the case are as follows: Will was the slave of Mr. James S. Battle, of Edgecombe County, and was placed under the direction of an overseer named Richard Baxter, a man whose temper differed materially from that of his pious namesake. On January 22, 1834, Will and another slave had a dispute over a hoe which Will claimed the right of using exclusively, since he had helved it in his own time. The foreman, who was also a slave, directed another Negro to use the hoe, whereupon Will, after some angry words, broke the helve of the hoe and went off to work at a cotton screw about one-fourth of a mile away. The foreman reported the matter to Baxter, who at once went to his own house. While there his wife was heard to say: “I would not, my dear,” to which he replied very positively: “I will.” He then took his gun, mounted his horse, and proceeded to the cotton screw, ordering the foreman in the meantime to take his cowhide and follow at some little distance. He approached unobserved to Will, who was throwing cotton into the press, and ordered him to come down....

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