Charlotte Dupuy, also called Lottie (born ca. 1787-1790 – d. after 1866), was an enslaved African-American woman who filed a freedom suit in 1829 against her master, Henry Clay, then Secretary of State. This case went to court seventeen years before Dred Scott filed his more famous legal challenge to slavery. Then living in Washington, DC, Dupuy sued for her freedom and that of her two children, based on a promise by her previous owner. This was an example of the many freedom suits filed by slaves in the decades before the Civil War.
Although the Circuit Court’s ruling in 1830 went against Dupuy, she had worked for wages for 18 months and lived in the household of Martin Van Buren, the succeeding Secretary of State, while it was decided. Clay had returned to his home in Kentucky in 1829. After the ruling, Clay had Dupuy transported to the home of his daughter and son-in-law in New Orleans, and she remained enslaved for another decade. Finally in 1840, Henry Clay freed Dupuy and her daughter Mary Ann. Four years later he freed her son Charles Dupuy. By 1860 her husband Aaron Dupuy was listed on the census as a free man living with her at Ashland.
Charlotte Dupuy was born into slavery in Cambridge, Maryland. She was brought to Kentucky in 1805 by the tailor James Condon, who had purchased her as a child from Daniel Parker in Cambridge. She was said to have been born about 1787. About 1806 she met and married Aaron Dupuy, a young man held by Henry Clay on his Ashland plantation in Lexington, Kentucky. Condon sold Charlotte to Henry Clay in May 1806, perhaps to allow the young couple to live together. Charlotte and Aaron had two children, Charles and Mary Ann Dupuy.
When Clay went to Washington, D.C., for his congressional term beginning in 1810, Charlotte, her husband Aaron and two children accompanied him or arrived to work for him soon after. They lived with Clay and served in the house he rented, originally built for Stephen Decatur. Located at Lafayette Square across from the White House, today the Decatur House is a museum and a designated National Historic Landmark.
Petition for freedom
Charlotte Dupuy and her family enjoyed the relative freedom of living in Washington, DC, where they met other slaves and joined some of the activities of the city. Clay allowed her to visit her mother and family on the Eastern Shore a couple of times. Following his Congressional career, Henry Clay served as Secretary of State from 1825-1829.
As Clay began making preparations in 1829 to leave the capital when his service ended, Dupuy filed a petition for her freedom and that of her children. She based this on her mother’s being free and her previous owner Condon’s promise to free her and her children. Clay thought his political enemies had persuaded her to do it but decided to fight it, as he was embarrassed by the publicity.
On February 13, 1829, her attorney Robert Beale wrote a petition on her behalf to the judges of the District of Columbia. The petition asked the courts to use their power to keep Clay from removing Charlotte Dupuy from the District of Columbia while her lawsuit for freedom was underway. The Court granted this petition.
Beale argued that Dupuy and her children were “entitled to their freedom” based on a promise by her previous master James Condon, but were “now held in a state of slavery by one Henry Clay (Secty of State) contrary to the law and your petitioners just rights.” Clay wanted to remove the Dupuys from their DC residence and return them to Kentucky. There, Beale argued, they would “be held as slaves for life.” While the Court allowed Charlotte Dupuy to stay in Washington while the case was heard, it permitted Clay to take her husband Aaron and children Mary Ann and Charles back to Kentucky.
Charlotte Dupuy’s petition to stay in the District temporarily was granted, but her writ for freedom was denied. Clay’s attorney showed that her mother had been freed after Charlotte was born, which did not affect her status as a slave. Her case was taken seriously for, according to a letter by Henry Clay, Dupuy stayed in DC “upwards of 18 months” after he left for Kentucky, awaiting the results of the trial. During these 18 months, Clay described her as acting as “her own mistress”. Dupuy worked for wages for the succeeding Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren, who also lived at Decatur House. The letter shows that Dupuy never willingly left DC. On the first page, Clay mused, “How shall I now get her …?” He approved of his agent’s having Dupuy arrested when she refused to return to Kentucky.
Although Dupuy was fighting for her freedom, the courts, in order to hear her case, had to assume her status as a free negro or a free person of color, since enslaved people had no legal standing in the courts. Such actions began to create political space for slaves’ freedom. The Court determined that the agreement between Dupuy and Condon was not applicable to any new ownership, and rejected her claim against Clay.
Clay’s agent arranged for Dupuy to be held in prison in Alexandria, which was part of the District of Columbia at the time, while he decided what to do. Clay had Dupuy removed from Washington and transported to New Orleans, to the home of his daughter and son-in-law Martin Duralde. She was enslaved there for another decade.
Finally on 12 October 1840, Henry Clay freed Charlotte Dupuy and her daughter Mary Ann in New Orleans. He retained her son Charles Dupuy, who traveled with him to speaking engagements. Clay frequently used him as an example of how well he treated slaves. He eventually freed Charles in 1844.
Either Clay before his death in 1852 or by his will, or his descendants freed Charlotte’s husband Aaron Dupuy, or “gave him his time”. The couple reunited to live again in Kentucky, where Aaron worked for John M. Clay at Ashland after his father’s death. While no deed of emancipation was found for Aaron Dupuy, according to the 1860 census, he and Charlotte Dupuy were listed as living together as free persons in Fayette County, Kentucky. An obituary of Aaron Dupuy said he died February 6, 1866 and was survived by his widow, although she was not listed by name.