Dandridge v. Lyon

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Dandridge v. Lyon, Wythe 123 (1791),[1] involved the interpretation of a will's language, and discussed whether a person could bequeath property that did not exist when that person died. It also provides an example of the ways in which slaves were discussed and treated as property during Wythe's time.


Thomas Lyon I owned a slave named Hannah. Thomas I died, and in his will he bequeathed his entire estate to his wife Mary Lyon for her life. Thomas I's will also bequeathed one of Hannah's first three children (who were not yet born when Thomas I died) to each of Thomas I's three children.

Mary Frazer was one of Thomas I's and Mary Lyon's children. Frazer survived all of Thomas I and Mary Lyon's children and inherited all their property. Frazer then wrote a will leaving "a Negro girl" to Elizabeth Willis after Mary Lyon's death, and leaving "all the remainder part of my estate" to Mary Lyon for Mary's life. Under Frazer's will, the estate would go to William Poindexter after Mary Lyon died.

Mary Frazer died, and her mother Mary Lyon died some time after that. Bartholomew Dandridge succeeded to Poindexter's right in Frazer's estate, which included slaves.

John Lyon was Frazer's common-law heir. John filed an action of detinue, an action to recover personal property wrongfully taken by another person,[2] against Dandridge with the New Kent County Court. The action asked the court to force Dandridge to turn over the slaves inherited from Frazer's estate to John. John and Dandridge submitted their dispute to arbitrators, who ruled and entered a judgment in favor of Dandridge.

John and Dandridge died. Thomas II became John' heir. Thomas filed another action of detinue against the executors of Dandridge's estate for the slaves, this time in James City County Court. By this time, a fire had destroyed all records of the arbitrators' previous judgment, and Dandridge's executors could not get the judgment validated until after James City County Court issued a verdict in favor of Thomas II.

Dandridge's executors filed a bill with the High Court of Chancery asking it to enjoin James City County Court's verdict.

In the Chancery Court, Thomas II argued that Poindexter could only inherit the estate that Frazer had given Mary Lyon for Mary Lyon's life. Thomas I's will, however, already gave Mary Lyon the rights to the slaves Frazer's will supposedly gave. Therefore, Thomas II argued, Frazer did not have the right to give the slaves to Mary Lyon, and therefore the rights to those slaves did not pass on to Poindexter after Mary Lyon died. Instead, the rights to the slaves passed to Mary Lyon's common-law heir, John, and then to Thomas II.

The Court's Decision

The Chancery Court issued an injunction permanently staying the execution of the James City County Court's judgment.

Wythe began by noting that if Frazer's bequest had simply been to Poindexter without the intervening inheritance by Mary Lyon for her life, then there would be no controversy. Frazer's slaves would have been given to Poindexter, and then Dandridge.

Wythe next said that if the slaves in question were Hannah's first three children, then Mary Lyon would not have had the rights to them unless the part of Thomas I's will giving Hannah's children to Thomas I's children was void. Wythe said that although some believed that the law forbade anyone from designating an owner for something which does not yet exist, he found otherwise.

Wythe noted that the law allows a person to designate an owner who does not yet exist - i.e., someone can say that a child who will be born 20 years in the future will inherit the estate. To Wythe, it made just as much sense to designate an owner for something that does not yet exist. Wythe also noted that a person may leave their slaves to trustees and charge the trustees with distributing the slaves' children as the will prescribes.

Wythe added that Roman civil law allowed a person to bequeath property which does not yet exist, citing to sections from Justinian's Digest and Institutes, both of which specifically gave examples of a child born to a female slave.[3]

Wythe also said that allowing someone to bequeath the children not yet born from a female slave would not put the slave's children in danger of dying. Normally, Wythe said, the children usually go to a close relative or friend of the dead person, as happened in this case, and that close relative or friend serves as a good surrogate parent. Wythe said "it is believed" that usually when slaves' children die, it is because the slave's owner hires the children out or places them in locations far from the owner's home.

Even if the slaves in question were not among Hannah's first three children, Wythe said, Frazer's bequest to Poindexter still stands. Wythe said that Frazer intended to leave her estate to three people: one girl to Willis, the rest of her estate to Mary Lyon during Mary Lyon's lifetime, and then the remainder of her estate to Poindexter. The way to interpret her will, then, is that all of Frazer's estate which effectively transferred to Mary Lyon should then go to Poindexter. It was irrelevant exactly how Mary Lyon came to own that part of Frazer's estate, whether by the right granted by Frazer's will or by Thomas I's. So, the slaves that were part of Frazer's estate should pass on to Poindexter (and then Dandridge) after Mary Lyon's death, whether they were one of Hannah's first three children or not.

Wythe said that Dandridge's executors might try to get relief in a court of law by applying for a writ of attaint, which investigates whether a jury delivered a false verdict, but Wythe added that as far as he knew, no Virginia court had ever accepted such a writ, nor had any English court in the past 300 years. In addition, a writ of attaint would not stop Thomas II from recovering the slaves in the meantime using the James City County Court's judgment, and Thomas II could then disappear with the slaves, making the remedy practically useless. On top of that, the court fire prevented Dandridge's executors from presenting one of their most important defenses, which was the arbitrators' earlier judgment.

Works Cited or Referenced by Wythe

Justinian's Digest

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

Dig. lib. XXX. 1. XXIV. [Q]uod in rerum natura adhuc non sit, legari posse, veluti, quidquid illa ancilla peperisset, constitit. Translation: [I]t is decided that whatever is not yet in the nature of things, is able to be bequeathed like whomever a female slave has given birth to.[4]

For this quotation, Wythe most likely used his copy of the Corpus Juris Civilis which includes the Digest of Justinian.

Justinian's Institutes

Quotation in Wythe's opinion:

Instit. lib. II. tit. 20 § 7. Ea quoque res, quae in rerum natura non est, si modo future est, recte legatur, veluti fructus qui in illo fundo nati erunt, aut quod ex illa ancilla natum erit. Translation: A thing which does not yet exist, but will exist, may be validly bequeathed:—for instance, the produce of such and such land, or the child of such and such female slave.[5]


  1. George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery with Remarks upon Decrees by the Court of Appeals, Reversing Some of Those Decisions, 2nd ed., ed. B.B. Minor (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1852): 123.
  2. Black's Law Dictionary 481 (8th ed. 2004).
  3. Just. Dig. 30.1.24; Just. Inst. 2.20.7.
  4. Wythe 126.
  5. Ibid, 125-26. Translation: J.B. Moyle