Doing Right by Charity?

On March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Of particular importance here was the infamous “six months” rule, which established that any slave “retained” in Pennsylvania for a period of time longer than six months must be granted their freedom.  This Act would have far-reaching consequences for a slave named Charity Castle.

In 1814, Castle was caught in the middle of a messy marital dispute within the Chew family of Philadelphia.  Author and scholar Philip R. Seitz, who is curator of history at Cliveden, the Chew family home, has been working in the family papers, now at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  Tomorrow (Saturday February 16) Seitz presents “Tales of enslavement: New research from Cliveden and the Chew Family Papers.”  This event, held at the Germantown Historical Society, 5501 Germantown Avenue, starts at 2PM.  For more information, call 215-844-0514. 

What story is Seitz likely to share?  We suspect it is the story of Charity Castle, the subject of his recent submission to The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

Harriet Chew Carroll, daughter of Pennsylvania Chief Justice Benjamin Chew, was mired in an abusive marriage with the son of a prominent Baltimore landowner, Charles Carroll Jr.  In May 1814, Harriet, with children and slaves, fled Maryland for her family home in Germantown.  

On the night of October 25, just a few days before the slaves would have been returned to Maryland or eligible for their freedom, Castle fell while searching for firewood.  With injuries to her chest and head, and unable to travel, Castle remained in Germantown after the deadline had passed. 

According to one Philadelphia lawyer, William Lewis, Charity Castle should be granted her freedom.  Harriet Chew Carroll felt that she should not lose a slave simply because of an “accident.”  “Accident made her a slave,” wrote Lewis, “accident has made her free, and it seems right she should avail herself of it.” 

The family sought a second opinion.  Philadelphia lawyer William Rawle supplied one, suggesting that Castle should not be free, citing the very language of the Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act itself.  Freedom would be provided to slaves “not alienated nor retained in this state longer than six months.”  Retention, Rawle interpreted, would be the choice of the slaveowner.  Since Harriet did not intend to keep Castle in Germantown, she had been not “retained.”  Rawle argued that Castle should remain enslaved.

Read more in Seitz’s article “Tales from the Chew Family Papers: The Charity Castle Story,” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

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