Fit for Freedom (part 5)
Awaiting the Court of Appeals
Georgiana waited outside the courtroom which was, after all, quite crowded and rather poorly ventilated. That was why she would be much more comfortable waiting outside, she had told Camden. In addition, as much as she enjoyed seeing him appear in court, she also knew that her presence seemed to make him nervous (at least if he was aware that she was there). Thus, today, on what might prove to be the most important day of his legal career so far, she concluded that she could do him the most good by remaining beyond his immediate vision and, hopefully, outside of his immediate thoughts.
For all the commotion that surrounded the hearings of the Court of Appeals, however, their courtroom was not the only hub of activity that morning. Not terribly long after Camden had gone inside and the doors had been shut, another court down the corridor concluded some proceeding or the other, judging by the large crowd that filed out. Among the throng Georgiana spotted a familiar face who had, apparently, noticed her as well.
“Ms. Burwell,” he said, making his way over to where she was seated. “What brings you to the courthouse today? I did not know that the law was one of your many interests.” St. George Tucker seated himself on the bench and fiddled with the folds of his judge’s robe momentarily.
“Indeed it is, Judge Tucker, but how could it be otherwise given my uncle and the”-- here she paused--“close association between the law and politics that forms such a part of my father’s life.”
She had been about to make a remark about Camden, but caught herself. They were not formally engaged, and to talk of him openly in overly intimate terms would not have pleased her mother or father, even at this stage in their courtship.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “You can, I hope, forgive me the assumption. Among women, Ms. Burwell, I’m afraid your interests are remarkably singular.”
“I take that as a compliment, sir.”
“As well you should,” he chuckled, “for I intended it only as such. But I also now recall that your uncle and his young apprentice are here today with their case in the Court of Appeals, are they not?”
“Yes. They went in only a few minutes ago. In this instance, I find it difficult to say whether the proceedings will turn out to be brief or lengthy. It seems to me that the case should be relatively straightforward, but my uncle and Mr. Page have spent a considerable amount of time in preparation.”
“Speaking from the opposite side of the bench, I can say that a judge much prefers to see advocates who may have over-prepared rather than the alternative. From the perspective of a young lady with a suitor, however . . .” Mr. Tucker trailed off and wrung his hands nervously.
“You needn’t worry about embarrassing me, Mr. Tucker. Mr. Page’s regular and not infrequent visits to my family’s house are not exactly unknown.”
Judge Tucker had been in her father’s house on more than one occasion and Georgiana had always found him to be more than an adequate conversationalist. Today, however, she sensed that beneath the surface something troubled him.
“I hope you will not mind my asking what brings you here this morning. Something to do with the General Court, I assume?”
Georgiana had expected the judge’s face to light up the way it always had before, on those occasions at one of her parents’ dinner parties where he would capture the attention of a small crowd by laying out the peculiar facts and thorny legal issues of an interesting case. He had, she thought, an unequalled talent for explaining things in ways that anyone could understand. It was no wonder, then, that he had been appointed to instruct the law students at the College of William and Mary at the same time that he had been selected for Virginia’s General Court some two years ago. If any legal mind intrigued Georgiana as much as her uncle’s and Camden’s, she was sure that mind belonged to St. George Tucker.
“Yes, it was a case for the General Court. I am sorry to say, however, that I derived no pleasure from hearing this particular case.”
“Oh, why is that?” she asked, her curiosity almost involuntarily piqued.
“An African man held in servitude and bondage”--his avoidance of the term ‘slavery’ did not escape Georgiana’s notice--“sued for his freedom. You are more than astute enough to know the result.”
“Yes, I see,” she said. “As I’ve told you before, Mr. Tucker, I find the present constitution of the laws on that subject abhorrent.”
“As do I, Ms. Burwell,” he interjected. “But as a judge I am bound to apply the laws, not make them. Unfortunately, fulfilling that oath makes the results of these types of cases no less distressing.”
“I’m glad we both happened to be here today, then, Mr. Tucker, because I have been inclined to ask you something for some time now, but have not had the opportunity thus far.”
Tucker turned his palms upward and inclined his head slightly to indicate that he was ready for her inquiry.
“Our Declaration of Rights says that all power is derived from the people, but that’s not quite accurate, is it? Would it not be more accurate to say that all power is ultimately vested in the Almighty?”
“Yes, naturally.” The Judge raised an eyebrow, unaccustomed as he was to being put in the dock for questioning.
“I agree. So much is evident from the assertion by which we initiated our separation from Britain, that the laws of nature's God entitle us to our freedom.”
She paused for a moment to see whether the judge had any comment to add. Seeing that he intended to listen for the time being, she continued.
“Thus when Virginia declares that all men are by nature equally free and independent, such a claim can only be grounded in God Himself, I must conclude. Any claim to the contrary violates the natural order, no matter what statutes might have been approved by the legislature. In fact, we recognize the supreme importance of men’s freedom as being such a sacred truth, that it enjoys pride of place in the pronouncements both of the Commonwealth of Virginia and of the states assembled in Congress. Does it not bring into sharp relief the frailty and incongruity of human nature, that a system by which we impose upon our fellow men a slavery that is inestimably worse than any of the oppressions that were visited upon us, continues to exist in a land that claims such devotion to liberty?”
Judge Tucker hung his head and let out a long sigh. Looking up again, he said, “You are no doubt correct, Ms. Burwell. You have also put the matter quite eloquently. Eloquence, I fear, will fail to persuade those who must be persuaded. Even were it not for the powerful commercial interests involved, there will always remain those who would find it impossible for the emancipated to remain among us in the absence of provision for their supporting themselves.”
Georgiana let out a shorter sigh of her own. “I grant that you may be correct about that, Mr. Tucker. Nevertheless, we must both admit that a system of abolition, however gradual, would be infinitely preferable not only to those presently held in bondage, but also to the unborn generations still to come.”
“Yes. Once again, I cannot argue with your conclusion or with its inevitable logic. The day on which the General Assembly would receive such a proposal with general approval seems very far away indeed. The man to illuminate the points you have made would have to be a statesman with no equal.”
“Perhaps you are just such a man, Mr. Tucker.”
“You flatter me, Ms. Burwell, but I will confine myself to teaching what the law is and how it operates, rather than entering the fray of trying to change it.”
Georgiana instantly thought of several witty responses to that, but did not get a chance to try out any of them, because their conversation was interrupted by the door to the courtroom being flung open. There seemed to be more of a buzzing chatter than she had expected upon the conclusion of the hearing. It was her understanding that the Court of Appeals never rendered a decision on the spot in cases like this. Then, spotting his head and shoulders above the press of the crowd, she saw Camden and waited for him to make his way over.
“Mr. Page,” Judge Tucker began. “I hope you bring good news for our Commonwealth. But perhaps you are not yet at liberty to discuss how the arguments went?”
“As a matter of fact, I can, your honor . . . bring good news, that is,” Camden began, casting a glance and a slight grin toward Georgiana. “At nearly the last moment, the Commonwealth of Kentucky agreed to reimburse Virginia for the muskets, saving us the necessity of proceeding with argument. I daresay the judges were less than pleased, but for my part, the outcome is a good one for all involved.”
“Splendid! Then let me be the first to congratulate you, Mr. Page. I should like to congratulate Mr. Randolph as well, but I really must take my leave. I ride for Williamsburg later today and I do not want to be late. It was a pleasure to see you again and please convey my congratulations to your mentor. Good day, Miss Burwell.”
With that the Judge strode down the corridor, leaving the two young people seated next to one another.
“I’m astonished, Cam,” Georgiana began. “I had no idea a settlement was so close.”
“In truth, my dear, neither did we.” He slid slightly closer--but not close enough to draw the eyes of any passerby--and dropped the volume of his voice so that their conversation might not be overheard. “Of course there are many pieces of information we simply must keep in confidence, but Mr. Randolph and I were convinced up until the very end that the stubborn nature of one of the men involved would sink what should have been an obvious and mutually agreeable resolution. I refer, of course to--”
“Governor Wilkinson?” Georgiana asked.
“Yes,” Camden replied. Furrowing his brow he asked, “One thing I’ve yet to understand about you, Georgiana, is how you do that. How do you--”
“Fill in what someone is about to say?” She threw back her head in laughter at the look of frustrated bewilderment on his face. She had noticed that he seemed to find her laugh irresistible and today was no different as he joined in her outburst of mirth.
Seeing Mr. Randolph approach, Georgiana rose and extended her hand. “I hear you are to be congratulated, Uncle.” As Mr. Randolph bent slightly, she rose onto her toes to gently kiss his cheek.
“Yes, Georgiana, I suppose. And I thank you. I assume Mr. Page has already given you all the pertinent details?”
“Was he supposed to? If so, then he has miserably failed in his duties as your apprentice and I expect you will have to reprimand him soundly. I trust you will extend no leniency for my sake.”
“Georgiana, my dear,” Mr. Randolph began in what must have been the severest tone he could muster, “Lesser men than myself and Mr. Page would long ago have tired of your unrelentingly jocund wit.” Offering her his arm, he continued: “As it is, however, I find it to be your most endearing quality and can only hope that you will subject us to more such sprightly teasing upon our return to my office. Will you join us?”
Her best attempts to continue her playful ruse were of no avail. She smiled and, taking her uncle’s arm, said, “It would be a delight.” They made their way to the exit arm-in-arm, with Camden close at her other side.