Dandridge v. Lyon

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First page of the opinion Danridge v. Lyon, in 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, by George Wythe. 2nd ed. (Richmond: J. W. Randolph, 1852).

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.


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

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

Mary Frazer was one of Thomas the elder's and Mary Lyon's children. Frazer inherited all the property from Thomas the elder's other children. She 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. After Mary Lyon died, the estate would go to William Poindexter.

Mary Lyon died after Frazer. 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 Bartholomew with the New Kent County Court. The action asked the court to force Bartholomew to turn over the slaves inherited from Frazer's estate to John. John and Bartholomew submitted their dispute to arbitrators, who ruled and entered a judgment in favor of Bartholomew.

John and Bartholomew died. Thomas the younger became John' heir. Thomas filed another action of detinue against the executors of Bartholomew'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 Bartholomew's executors could not get the judgment validated until after James City County Court issued a verdict in favor of Thomas the younger.

Bartholomew'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 the younger argued that Poindexter could only inherit the estate that Frazer had given Mary Lyon for Mary Lyon's life. Thomas the elder's will, however, already gave Mary Lyon the rights to the slaves Frazer's will supposedly gave. Therefore, Thomas the younger concluded, 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 the younger.

The Court's Decision

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 thereafter Bartholomew.

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 the elder's will giving Hannah's children to Thomas the elder's children was void. Wythe said that some people believed that the law forbade anyone from designating an owner for something which does not yet exist, but he finds 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 because the slave did not get adequate time to nurse and raise the children. 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's intent was that she 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 that 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 the elder's. So, the slaves that were part of Frazer's estate should pass on to Poindexter (and then Bartholomew) after Mary Lyon's death, whether they were one of Hannah's first three children or not.

Wythe said that Bartholomew'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 the younger from recovering the slaves in the meantime using the James City County Court's judgment, and Thomas the younger could then disappear with the slaves, making the remedy practically useless. On top of that, the court fire prevented Bartholomew's executors from presenting one of their most important defenses, which was the arbitrators' earlier judgment.


  1. George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery, 123 (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 2d ed. 1852).
  2. Black's Law Dictionary 481 (8th ed. 2004).
  3. Just. Dig. 30.1.24; Just. Inst. 2.20.7.