"She has been her own mistress."
Charlotte Dupuy, a woman enslaved at Decatur House by Secretary of State Henry Clay, sued him in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia for her freedom and that of her two children, Charles and Mary Ann, in February 1829, seventeen years before Dred Scott filed his well-known legal challenge to slavery. She based her claim on a promise of freedom made to her by her previous owner, which she believed transferred to Henry Clay when he purchased her in 1806, after she married Aaron Dupuy, a man already enslaved in Clay's household.
As the petition from Dupuy's attorney shown above indicates, Clay's preparations to leave the capital following his service as secretary of state dictated the timing of her legal challenge. Clay took Dupuy's husband and children back to Kentucky with him, but she remained in Washington. Letters Henry Clay wrote are evidence of his anxiety about the outcome of the case and reveal that while the case was being decided, Charlotte Dupuy continued to reside at Decatur House, earning wages working for the home's next resident, Secretary of State, and later the 8th President, Martin Van Buren.
After the court denied her petition, Charlotte Dupuy refused to return to Kentucky, and as a result, authorities jailed her in Alexandria, Virginia, until arrangements could be made for her transport. When Clay wrote to his agent to approve of Dupuy's imprisonment, he reported that, ". . . her conduct has created insubordination among her relatives here, I think it high time to put a stop to it, which can best be done by her return to duty."
Eleven years after her lawsuit, in 1840, Henry Clay granted Charlotte and Mary Ann Dupuy their freedom. Charles Dupuy remained enslaved by Clay for another four years, during which he traveled with Clay to speaking engagements throughout the country, portrayed by Clay as an example of how well he treated his slaves.
Charlotte Dupuy's decisions to file the petition and openly defy Henry Clay by staying Washington, D.C. were brave ones. Clay could have easily punished her and family by selling them to the lower south as retribution for taking him to court. Indeed, she was separated from her family for some time along with being jailed and forcibly transferred back to Kentucky. Her story of attempted self-emancipation is an important one, because it demonstrates her resolve and how enslaved people used whatever resources were available to free themselves.