On August 22, 1837, a Georgetown resident sold Dorcas Allen and her four children to James H. Birch, a District of Columbia slave trader He transported them across the Potomac to Alexandria, Virginia to hold them in the largest slave pen in the District. They faced, most likely, passage on a slave coffle to Natchez or New Orleans. That same evening, Allen, who had married and been living unofficially in the District as a “free Negro” for a number of years, killed the two youngest children and was restrained from harming the others, after their terrified shrieks alerted someone nearby. On October 8, 1837, she appeared before the District Circuit Court in Alexandria and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. At her trial the following day, her attorneys called several witnesses who testified on her behalf, and the jury found her not guilty. James Birch reclaimed his now near valueless property and promptly advertised Allen and her two surviving children for sale at an auction house in downtown Washington.
Seventy-year-old John Quincy Adams, then serving his fourth term as a Massachusetts congressman, noticed the advertisement and attended the auction. For the first time in his life, Adams witnessed the utter misery of a slave auction, and, after learning that Allen's husband, Nathan, wished to purchase his wife and children, he pledged fifty dollars in aid. During the next few days, Adams became disturbed as he discovered the details of Allen's trial and the questionable circumstances behind her sale to Birch. Already in the public limelight as the congressman who insisted on presenting abolitionist petitions to Congress despite the “gag rule” forbidding it, Adams agonized that his entanglements with the fate of a slave might cause his political ruin.
Slavery Exacts An Impossible Price argues that the Allen case illustrates the tensions in the District of Columbia between the moral law and the codified law within the context of the antislavery and abolitionist petitions presented to Congress. It argues that her predicament connects directly to the ideological, legal, and moral questions which arose from the abolitionist petition campaign and the presence of the slave trade in the District. Every twist and complicated turn of Allen's case, and its participants, shows how abstract political arguments about the legalities of slavery eventually became inseparable from moral and religious objections.
As evidence, this dissertation relies principally on the unpublished diaries and letters of John Quincy Adams, cases involving African Americans in the District Circuit Court, early Republic insanity cases, census, church, and demographic records from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. As this case occurred a few years before the more commonly known Amistad controversy, it provides provocative insights into John Quincy Adams's struggles with the morality and legalities of slavery. It also demonstrates the human cost involved in the long process behind the eventual Congressional ban of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, in comparison with studies that concentrate on abstract political partisan wrangling over the issue.