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Moral Dilemmas of Celia, A Slave

Melton McLaurin s book Celia, A Slave is the account of the trial, conviction, and execution of a female slave for the murder of her master in 1855. The author uses evidence compiled through studying documents from Callaway County, Missouri and the surrounding area during the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Although much of what we can determine about this event is merely speculation, we are able to guess the motives that contribute to the way in which many of the events unfold. Because of the details of the trial, many of the people involved probably faced several difficult decisions that led to the outcome of the trial.

During the 1850s the United States was involved in a heated debate over the issue of slavery. Many of the residents of Missouri and nearby Kansas were fighting for or against the institution of slavery. The outcome of this trial was important because it could have a tremendous affect upon the way the legal system in Missouri viewed the rights of slaves, and the ways in which they would be forced to interpret the laws of the State in regard to how they where to apply to slaves.

The first of the main characters we are introduced to is Celia s master, Robert Newsom. Mr. Newsom was a wealthy landowner in Callaway County. In 1850, after the death of his wife, Robert Newsom purchased a fourteen year old slave girl from nearby Audrain County. The purpose, as far as McLaurin can tell for her purchase was as a replacement for Robert Newsom s wife. From the time that Newsom first acquires Celia, he begins to rape her on a regular basis. Although it was generally accepted as being morally wrong for a slave master to sexually abuse a slave, Robert Newsom seems to view her as his property, to do with as he pleased rather than as a human being. So the first of many ethical decisions is made, as Robert Newsom begins an unauthorized sexual relationship with his slave which lasts five years until his death in the summer of 1855.

There is no way to know much about the sexual history of Celia before she met Robert Newsom, in fact McLaurin states that really nothing is know about her before 1850. Due to her young age, there is a very good possibility that her first sexual experience was with Newsom. Regardless of whether or not she was a virgin, the constant series of rapes by her master was sure to have a tremendous psychological affect upon her. It was this trama, combined with pressure from her boyfriend, another of Newsom s slaves named George, that drove her to decide to forcefully resist Robert s sexual advances toward her. Now we see her predicament, either continue to suffer his violations and lose the man she loves, or fight back and risk losing her life. When she decides to attack him as he enters her cabin on the night of June 23, she ends up killing him. Now in an effort to save her own life, she disposes of the body by burning it in her fireplace, rather than confessing to her crime and facing her punishment.

The next day, as the search begins for Robert Newsom, some of Robert s friends and family begin to interrogate George. George denies any knowledge of the fate of Newsom at first, but eventually hints that Celia may have killed Newsom. So he makes his decision between protecting Celia for committed a crime which he helped to provoke, or to protect himself. Unfortunately he chooses self-preservation over the woman he loves.

Two of Robert Newsom s children, his daughters, Virginia Waynescott and Mary Newsom still resided in his home. Although there is no evidence to suggest that they knew about their father s affair with Celia, it is easy to assume that throughout the course of the five years while she resided there, they probably found out that Robert was molesting Celia. However there was probably little they could do to protect her from their father. Both women were financially dependent upon Robert, especially Virginia, who had children to care for. During the 1800s women really had very little power in regards to the men who headed their households. Another motive for them to not get involved in protecting Celia was to avoid the embarrassment that would be caused if the details of Robert and Celia s relationship was ever made public. Once again, someone in a position to help protect Celia chose to do nothing to protect her, even though it wasn t the morally proper thing to do.

The last people in a position give justice to Celia was those involved in the prosecution of Celia for the murder of Robert Newsom. First there is John James, the head lawyer of her defense. Jameson was one of the most prominent citizens of Callaway County, he had held office as a Congressman, as well as a wealthy and successful slave and land owner. He also had two daughters, close to the same age as Celia which may have caused him to have some degree of sympathy for her. Jameson had also spent a great deal of time studying religion, so there is little doubt that he had pondered the morality of slavery at some point. Despite the risks that one might have associated with his defense of a slave that had killed her master, regardless of the motives, Jameson appears to have made every effort to defend her to the best of his abilities. Unfortunately the prosecution in this case was to strong, led by Robert Prewitt, they virtually prevented Jameson from making any sort of case for the defense of Celia. The one chance that the defense had to save Celia s life was to convince the jury that she was fearing for her life when she killed Newsom. The prosecution refused to allow this to happen, by objecting to the accusations that Robert ever raped Celia. So rather than allowing Celia to plead her case for justice, they hid behind objections, sustained by the judge, William Hall. Although Judge Hall was aware of the possibility that Celia s actions may have been justified, he was to afraid of the dangers that a lengthy trial might present to both the community, himself and his political party, so by quieting Celia s defense and later refusing to grant a stay of execution while awaiting a retrial he was able to protect himself.

The evidence collected by Melton McLaurin writing Celia, A Slave supports the fact that Celia may have been justified in the murder of her master, but because of events going on outside of her case, she was never allowed justice for her suffering. No matter what, sometimes it is impossible to separate politics from out personal lives. The effects of the political aspects of slavery reached into the courtroom and denied her the justice that the court system is there to provide, a fair trial. The story of Celia shows the immoral aspects of slavery and how it led those involved in the institution, and even some not involved to decisions that where even more wrong than the slavery itself.


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