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Few people know the story of a brave woman named Charlotte Dupuy who was enslaved by Secretary of State Henry Clay at Decatur House, the large brick residence that has stood on Lafayette Square at the corner of H Street and Jackson Place since 1818.

In 1829, while living at Decatur House, Dupuy sued Clay in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia for her freedom. Charlotte Dupuy, or "Lotty" as she was known, felt that Clay was obligated to uphold an agreement she had with her previous owner to free her and her two children, Charles and Mary Ann, in February 1829, seventeen years before Dred Scott filed his well-known legal challenge to slavery. She believed the promise of freedom from her previous owner transferred to Henry Clay when he purchased her in 1806, after she married Aaron Dupuy, a man already enslaved in Clay's household.

Document summoning Henry Clay to court to answer Charlotte Dupuy's petition for freedom.

National Archives, Washington, D.C.

As the petition from Dupuy's attorney 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.

Bill of Sale for Charlotte Dupuy from James Condon to Henry Clay.

Bill of Sale for Charlotte Dupuy from James Condon to Henry Clay

May 12, 1806

I have this day bargained sold and delivered, and by these presents do bargain sell and deliver, to Henry Clay, for and in consideration of four hundred & fifty dollars, a negro female slave named Charlotte, aged about nineteen, which said slave I warrant & defend to said Clay against the claim of all & every person whatsoever; and I likewise warrant her to be sound.

Witness my hand & seal this 12th May 1806

(signed) Jas. Condon {L.S}

Teste.

Isaac Wells

Letter written by Robert Beale on behalf of Charlotte Dupuy petitioning the Judges to summon Henry Clay to court.

Letter written by Robert Beale on behalf of Charlotte Dupuy petitioning the Judges to summon Henry Clay to court

To the Honbl Judges of the circuit court of the District of Columbia for the county of Washington.

The several petitions of Charlotte or Lotty Charles and Mary Ann respectfully and humbly sets forth to your honors that they are people of color who 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 and that they are about to be taken out of this district and carried into the state of Kentucky, there to be held as slaves for life whereupon they severally pray your honors to grant them such releif [sic] as they may be lawfully entitled to and such process of your honorable court against the said Henry Clay as is usual in such cases to compel the attendance of the said Henry Clay in your honbl court to answer this petition and to enter the usual security and recognizance not to remove your petitioners or any of them beyond the jurisdiction of your honorable court and as in duty bound they will ever pray

Robt Beale pro

petitioners

First page of a letter from Henry Clay to his agent in Washington, Philip Fendall, regarding Charlotte Dupuy's petition for freedom.

Letter written written by Henry Clay to his agent in Washington, Philip Fendall, regarding Charlotte Dupuy's bid for freedom*

To Philip R. Fendall

Lexington, September 10, 1830

I received you favor of the 31t. Ulto. I approve entirely of your order to the Marshall to imprison Lotty. Her husband and children are here. Her refusal therefore to return home, when requested by me to do so through you, was unnatural towards them as it was disobedient to me. She has been her own mistress, upwards of 18 months, since I left her at Washington, in consequence of the groundless writ which she prompted against me for her freedom; and as that writ has been decided against her, and as 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 her duty. How shall I now get her, is the question? There are persons frequently bringing slaves from the district to this State, some one of whom might perhaps undertake to conduct her to Maysville, Louisville or Lexington, or some other point from which I could receive her. Or perhaps some opportunity might occur to send her from Alexandria [Va.] to N. Orleans, free from much expense, to my son in law Martin Duralde Esqr. I should be content to receive her in either way. But I cannot think of troubling you unnecessarily with this affair. Perhaps Mr. John Davis (if you would have the goodness to speak to him) would undertake to look out for some person coming in this quarter who would engage to bring her. In the mean time, be pleased to let her remain in jail and inform me what is necessary for me to do to meet the charges ...

*only represents a portion of this four-page handwritten letter

Decatur House today, located on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.

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