JOHN BAPTISTA ASHE (class of 1830) was one of “quite a few North Carolinians [who] attended Trinity—in that generation”1
The senior class of undergraduates at Washington (now Trinity) College in 1829-1830 included four North Carolinians, one of whom was John Baptista Ashe, later a lawyer and a member of the United States Congress representing the state of Tennessee. Ashe (1810-1857) came from a politically-active family in North Carolina tied to the American Revolution that was also involved in slaveholding.2
Up until now, no known document within Trinity’s College Archives has acknowledged the connection of John B. Ashe to slavery.
Transcript: Whereas James H. Taylor executed to John B Ashe a bill of sale for a certain slave named Bill —
Dated October 1842, the document shows Taylor, who was reported as holding 26 slaves in the 1840 federal census, settling a ‘slave mortgage’ he owed to merchant James L. Winfield. Consequently, Winfield & Co. relinquished all claim of ownership that it had over the “said boy Bill,” whose lack of a reported surname was itself an indication of the dehumanizing presence of slavery in the young United States.3
Though nothing more is known about “Bill” and his life, and the timing of the aforementioned sale between Taylor and Ashe is unclear from this particular record of the transaction between Taylor and Winfield, other details about slavery are revealed from the manuscript alone. It is possible to conjecture that the purchase of the male named “Bill” may have cost Ashe $216.21, the difference between the settling of the $716.21 debt owed to Winfield & Co. and the $500.00 “secured by a different arrangement to the satisfaction of said Winfield &Co.”4 Regardless exactly how much the young man had cost Ashe, the document—really a piece of financial/legal ephemera—nonetheless demonstrates the role of the North Carolinian John B. Ashe as a slaveholder who lived on the cotton frontier of western Tennessee.
Indeed, by 1840, ten years after finishing his studies in Hartford and eight years after his admission to the bar, Ashe was a lawyer in Haywood County, and a state senator representing three western counties in Tennessee.5 There the federal census taker counted eight slaves in Ashe’s household.6 Four years later, on July 31, 1844, the Washington College Board of Trustees “resolved that the degree of Bachelor of Arts be conferred upon John Baptista Ashe of the graduating class of 1830.”7 It is not known why he was the only one of the 21 members of his class not to have received the degree upon graduation over a decade earlier, back in 1830:
Transcript: Resolved that the degree of Bachelor of Arts be conferred upon John Baptista Ashe of the graduating class of 1830. — Adjourned to 9 o clock tomorrow morning.
His brother, William Shepperd Ashe, had also attended Washington College in the 1830s, but he left the college before completing the required number of courses. Thus, unlike his brother, William never was conferred a degree by the college. However, he too served in the U.S. Congress (1849-1855).8
In late 1842, as a supporter of the Whig party, John B. Ashe ran for election to the U.S. House of Representatives, a contest which he won. Representing the old 10th, or Memphis district in Tennessee, he served two years in Washington, D.C.9 Among the votes he cast in Congress, he voted in January 1845 in support of the United States annexing the slaveholders’ republic of Texas. He was one of eight Whigs in Congress who voted in favor of that annexation bill. That same year Ashe declined to run for re-election, citing “ill health.”10 For yet unknown reasons, he uprooted his family—which had grown with the birth of four children, William, Samuel S., Gaston Richard, and Elizabeth—to the new state of Texas. Another child was born in Texas.11 There, he continued to practice in the legal profession outside of Galveston, as well as briefly becoming vice Collector of Customs of that federal port.12
Reaching the age of forty in 1850, John B. Ashe was evolving politically in concert with the sectional partisanship of that era. Two years later, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Memphis Appeal to exclaim that he could not “regard the South as safe, either in her institutions, or the persons of her citizens, under the administration of a party, headed by such men” as northern Whigs’ and Free-Soilers’ William Seward, Horace Greeley, Thomas Corwin, or William F. Johnston.13 Ashe’s vocal defense of slavery as an institution may have played a role in his decision to leave the Whig Party in 1852.14 By 1857, he ran as a Democrat to represent Harris County for that party in the state legislature in Texas.15 Though he won that election, John Baptista Ashe died in Galveston in December 1857, before he could take office in the state capitol.16 On the 1861 Galveston County tax rolls, Ashe’s son and widow—Samuel S. Ashe and Elizabeth Hay Ashe—were assessed as residents of the city of Galveston for holding “10 Negroes” “value[d]” at $8800.17
As one of its missions as a public research library within a college, the Watkinson Library and College Archives preserves the history of Trinity College from its founding in 1823, including the intersection of stories of its graduates and of the enslavement of other human beings.
The recollection that at least one North Carolinian of the Washington College class of 1830 made a purchase of another human being can be told through important new additions to the documentary collections made available to the public at the Watkinson Library.18 While documents such as this “bill of sale” are subject to interpretation, all interpretations must be subject to the standards of historical evidence, widely acknowledged contexts, and generally confirmable stories about the past.
College Archivist & Manuscript Librarian