Enslaved Background Image

Stories / Charlotte Dupuy

Charlotte Dupuy

Charlotte Dupuy, an enslaved litigant, was born Charlotte Stanley on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the daughter of Rachel and George Stanley. Charlotte, commonly known as Lotty, spent her childhood enslaved, along with her mother and two siblings, by Daniel Parker in Dorchester County, Maryland. Whether George  Stanley was born a slave is uncertain, but he was free by 1792 when he purchased Rachel and Charlotte's siblings Leah and Jonathan. He immediately manumitted his wife and stipulated the freedom of the two children upon their reaching the legal age. Charlotte, for reasons that are still  unclear, remained enslaved in Parker's household until age nine, when she was sold to James Condon for one hundred dollars. Condon was a tradesman who lived nearby with his wife and at least one other  slave. Rachel paid her daughter frequent visits, and the Condons may have promised Charlotte  eventual freedom. Condon's apprentice later recalled that “I frequently heard Mrs. Condon say, at  times when a little provoked with Lotty's conduct that she [Lotty] should not be free so soon as Lotty  expected—I have also heard in Condon's family that Lotty was promised her freedom” (Records of the  Court). Nevertheless, when Charlotte was about eighteen years old Condon moved her with his family  to Lexington, Kentucky, and he made sure to register her as a slave in that state. 

After her arrival in Lexington, Charlotte became acquainted with Aaron Dupuy, a slave at Ashland, the  estate of then-twenty-nine-year-old Whig political titan, Henry Clay. Charlotte Stanley married Dupuy  nearly a year later. Their marriage prompted Condon and Clay, one of the state's largest slaveholders,  to agree to Charlotte Dupuy's sale. Clay purchased her for $450 on 12 May 1806. The Dupuys worked  as domestic servants in the Clay household—Aaron as Clay's personal body servant and Charlotte as a  nursemaid to his children. While at Ashland, Dupuy gave birth to two children, Charles and Mary Ann,  and the family apparently remained in Kentucky while Clay—elected to the U.S. House of  Representatives in 1810—cultivated his political career in Washington. In 1817 or 1818, Clay, who had  become the Speaker of the House almost immediately after his arrival in Congress, moved the Dupuys  to the capital to help run his ever more impressive establishment. Upon his appointment as secretary  of state in 1824, Clay moved his household to a grand brick townhouse situated adjacent to the White  House on the President's Park. Here Dupuy likely interacted with the capital's most seminal political  figures—as well as its burgeoning free black population, including former slave Alethia Tanner , who  operated a grocery stand on the park. Also during her residence in the city, Dupuy paid at least two  extended visits to her relatives on Maryland's Eastern Shore. 

At the end of his term as secretary of state, Clay rejected an offer of appointment to the U.S. Supreme  Court, opting instead to return to his Kentucky estate. Dupuy, perhaps unhappy to leave a city that  afforded her independence and closer proximity to family, resisted the impending return to Clay's  plantation. Her defiance took the bold form of a lawsuit against her owner. On 13 February 1829, Robert Beale filed a petition on Dupuy's behalf in the U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. The suit asserted that she and her children “are entitled to their freedom and who are now held in a state  of slavery by one Henry Clay (Secty of State) contrary to law and your petitioners' just rights” (Records  of the Court). Dupuy based her claim on the contention that the free status of her mother and  grandmother entitled her to her own freedom. She further cited Condon's assurances of emancipation  when she reached the age of eighteen, thus rendering her transport to Kentucky and subsequent sale  to Clay illegal. 

Clay, who was accustomed to political conflict and controversy, insisted that Dupuy acted not on her  own accord, but under the influence of political rivals bent on instigating scandal. Outraged, Clay  wrote that the suit “has been instigated by motives distinct from the desire to liberating the  petitioners, for the purpose of injuring and embarrassing this respondent” (Clay Papers, vol. 7, 623). In  his correspondence with Clay regarding the suit, Dupuy's former owner James Condon similarly argued  that her actions resulted from “some evil disposed person operating upon the mind of Lotty  improperly” (Clay Papers, vol. 7, 632). Clay further asserted the impossibility of Dupuy's pretensions to  freedom, recalling that she never exhibited any inclinations to run away, even when presented with  such an opportunity when visiting her relations in Maryland. Condon also corroborated this notion,  assuring Clay that while he did at one time promise her manumission, Dupuy “voluntarily relinquished  [the possibility of emancipation] by marrying Your Servant Boy Aron [sic] and by her own pressing  solicitations I sold her to you” (Clay Papers, vol. 7, 632). 

With Clay and the remainder of her family in Kentucky, Dupuy continued to reside for the duration of  the suit in Clay's former President's Park home, now assumed by his successor as secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. The court investigated her allegations for nearly a year, collecting the testimony of  witnesses in Maryland and Kentucky. Her other previous owner, Daniel Parker, was deceased at the  time of the lawsuit, but several residents of Dorchester County, Maryland, testified that he sold her to  Condon as a “slave for life.” Based on such testimony, as well as the receipt of manumission of her  mother and the bill of sale between Condon and Clay, the court finally rejected Dupuy's claim to  freedom in mid-1830. Soon after, Henry Clay demanded Dupuy's return to Lexington, complaining that  “her conduct has created insubordination among her relatives here, I think it high time to put a stop to  it, which can be best done by her return to duty” (Clay Papers, vol. 8, 261). However, Dupuy remained  reluctant to leave, further enraging Clay, who ordered her immediate imprisonment and transport to  Kentucky. Dupuy was instead carried to New Orleans, arriving “very penitent” in December 1830 (Clay  Papers, vol. 8, 309). She remained in New Orleans at the home of Clay's daughter in the years that  followed, separated from her husband and children. His daughter wrote in 1832 that “I cannot thank  my dear Mother enough for having spared Lotty to me, she is the best creature I ever saw and appears  to be quite as much attached to the children as she ever was to yours” (Clay Papers, vol. 8, 441). 

In time, Clay apparently regained his good opinion of Dupuy; on 12 October 1840, a decade after her  failed fight for freedom, he emancipated Dupuy and her daughter Mary Ann, noting Dupuy's dedicated  service as a nurse to his children and grandchildren. Her son Charles continued to serve as Clay's  personal servant until his own manumission in December 1844. Dupuy's grandson Henry, the child of  Mary Ann, was sold by Clay in 1848 under the condition that he would be freed at age twenty-eight.

While there is no existing record of when and how Clay emancipated Aaron, both Aaron and Charlotte as listed as free persons in the 1860 Census for Fayette County, Kentucky. Aaron’s 1866 obituary states that he was survived by his wife, presumably Charlotte.

In the 1960s Dupuy's home in Washington, D.C., where  Clay lived during his tenure as secretary of state, was opened as the Stephen Decatur House Museum. There, the history of Charlotte Dupuy's life and her fight to win her freedom are presented along with  the history of the house's other residents, including its original owner Stephen Decatur, who died in a duel, and Clay, Van Buren, five antebellum U.S. congressmen, and a U.S. vice president. 
 
Read the full, original biography by Carla J. Jones in the African American National Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

"Charlotte Dupuy: 'She has been her own mistress,'" White House Historical Association website,  https://www.whitehousehistory.org/decatur-house-and-charlotte-dupuy

Gilbert King, "The Day Henry Clay Refused to Compromise," Smithsonian Magazine online, Dec. 6, 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-day-henry-clay-refused-to-compromise-153589853/

Bibliography


Records of Charlotte Dupuy vs. Henry Clay are available in the records of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia for Washington County, National Archives, Washington, D.C. 

Seager, Robert, II, ed. The Papers of Henry Clay, vol. 7 (1982). 

Troutman, Richard L. “The Emancipation of Slaves by Henry Clay,” Journal of Negro History 40:2 (Apr. 1955).

Adapted by

Jennifer Mojica Santana

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Bill of Sale for Charlotte Dupuy from James Condon to Henry Clay, 12 May, 1806. White House Historical Association, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/photos/photo-3-21

Key Events

1787-1796

Charlotte Stanley is born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to Rachel and George Stanley in 1787 and spends her childhood enslaved in Dorchester County, MD. Her father gains his freedom when she is five years old. When she is nine, her owner, James Condon, who promises her eventual freedom, sells her for $100.

1805-06

At the age of 18, Condon moves Charlotte to Lexington, Kentucky, with his family and registers her as a slave. While in Kentucky, she becomes acquainted with Aaron Dupuy, who was enslaved at Ashland. In 1806, Henry Clay, Aaron Dupuy’s master, purchases Charlotte from Condon for $450, following her marriage to Aaron

1810-1824

Clay is elected to serve the House of Representatives in 1810 and cultivates his political career in Washington, DC. Appointed Speaker of the House c. 1818, Clay moves the Dupuys from KY to DC. When Clay is appointed Secretary of State in 1824 he moves the household closer to the White House. It’s likely that Charlotte Dupuy interacted with the capital’s “most seminal political figures—as well as its burgeoning free Black population”. She is also able to visit her relatives in Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

c. 1829-mid 1830s

After rejecting an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Clay decides to return to his KY estate. Dupuy resists the return, thus filing a lawsuit against him. During this period, she resides at Clay’s former DC home. In Feb. 1829 Robert Beale files a petition to the U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, on behalf of Dupuy. The petition asserted the right of Dupuy and her children to freedom on the basis of her mother’s and grandmother’s freedom. She also cited Condon’s promises of emancipation, thus rendering her sale to Clay illegal. In response to the lawsuit, residents of Dorchester County testified that her first owner had sold her to Condon as a “slave for life”.

1830s

The court rejects Dupuy’s claim to freedom. Immediately, Clay demands her return to Lexington, but she refuses. Enraged, he demands her imprisonment and transport to KY. In December 1830, Dupuy is taken to New Orleans, where she stays with Clay’s daughter. In 1832 Clay’s daughter writes a letter expressing her gratitude for Dupuy.

1840-1848

In October 1840, Clay emancipates Dupuy and her daughter Mary Ann, noting the former’s dedicated service. Four years later one of her sons, Charles, is granted freedom, but Clay sells another son, Henry, on the condition that he be freed at 28 years old.

Late 1850s-1860

Dupuy’s husband, Aaron, is referenced as “old Aaron” in Clay’s correspondence dating throughout this period. While no deed of manumission for him has been found, both Aaron and Charlotte as listed as free persons in the 1860 Census for Fayette County, Kentucky. Aaron’s 1866 obituary states that he was survived by his wife, presumably Charlotte.

1960s

Dupuy’s home in DC opens as the Stephen Decatur House Museum, showing the history of her life, especially her fight for emancipation, as well as the history of the house’s other residents.