The Antebellum DC Circuit Court

One thing that tends to confuse folks about older cases is the changing nature of the Federal Circuit Courts – until 1891 they were trial courts that operated in tandem with the District Courts, staffed by District Court Judges as well as US Supreme Court Justices “riding circuit.”1  The National Archives has the files of the old Circuit Courts in their holdings, mostly in their regional branches, and I’ve become familiar with the Circuit Court records because pretty much every trial-level case on intellectual property in the nineteenth century was brought in the Circuit Court.  The only Circuit Court records held in the DC location of the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue are for the DC Court, and the Archives was recently good enough to share three inventories made in the 1990s of these records.  All are searchable PDFs under 2 MB.

The first of these inventories is a general inventory of interesting cases, which includes mentions of a case involving the cost of printing the Congressional Globe, a patent case, and a great deal else.

The second is perhaps the most interesting to scholars, and it is also the longest at 80 pages.  It is an inventory of all DC Circuit Court actions involving african-americans during the antebellum era.  The picture that emerges is a depiction of the banality of slavery in society over sixty years.  Listed in this file are many petitions for freedom, and these petitions are available online.

Finally, there is an inventory of household items seized by marshalls.

It’s worth remembering that every case mentioned in these inventories corresponds to a folder at the National Archives in Washington DC.

  1. The Circuit Courts were not abolished until 1912, but the creation of the Circuit Courts of Appeal substantially limited their importance.  More from Wikipedia.

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