Sunday, July 5, 2015

Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Two Controversial Decisions, The Story of David Rorer

The Story of David Rorer

David Rorer was Ralph Montgomery's attorney who successfully argued the very first Iowa Territorial Supreme Court case in 1839.

       David's life as a pioneer, lawyer, and a former slave owner conflicted with his conscience ahead of the Civil War. He received legal training in Virginia and later practiced in Arkansas before he moved to Iowa.

       His daughter Delia wrote: "Still under 30 years of age, he was rapidly making a name for himself in the South, but he found himself entirely out of sympathy with the people over the slavery issue."

      He credited a conversation with a member of Congress for his decision to leave. David made a prediction 20 years before the Civil War that the South would leave the Union. According to Delia "He went home and talked the matter over with his wife. He would throw in with the free North and the Union." He called his servants together, told them they are free and invited them to come with his family to the north where they would be free.

     Delia wrote: "But one volunteered to go. She was the children's nurse, 'Nin,' and she came with the Rorer family to Burlington."

      Iowa was still a decade away from statehood and Burlington not yet a town when Rorer and his family arrived in the territory in 1836. In 1837 Burlington became the capitol of the Territory of Wisconsin and in 1838 the capitol of the Iowa Territory. David constructed the first brick building in Iowa, helped craft Burlington's city government, draft the town ordinances, and helped lay out the city streets.

      Rorer's legal career ended almost before it began. He ran, unsuccessfully, for the U. S. Congress in 1838. His opponent, Peter Engle, was elected over him. One of Engle's backers, Cyrus Jacobs, took offense at Rorer's comments about Engle. He met Rorer on the street after the election, produced a pistol and hit Rorer in the head with a cane. According to the Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: "Rorer reeled and fired his own pistol, with fatal results." The shooting was ruled self defense.

     With the success of the 1839 Iowa Territorial Supreme Court decision behind him Rorer represented another client in 1850 on the opposite of the slavery issue. Ruel Daggs was a Missouri slave owner who, with the help of David Rorer sued members of the Quaker community of Salem, Iowa in federal court of harboring nine of Daggs' slaves, including a pregnant woman. According to court documents Daggs offered a reward for the capture and return of his property. Slave catchers Samuel Slaughter, James McClure, Henry Brown and Thomas Cook went after and found the runaways hiding in the bushes near Salem, Iowa.

     The people of Salem discovered what was happening and a crowd of 100 people gathered to protect the slaves before the men could capture them. A local, Moses Baldwin threatened: "he would wade up to his knees in Missouri blood before surrendering the men, women and children." David Rorer later argued: "It was a riotous assemblage. It was a conspiracy to injure the plaintiff, and all who were present were guilty."

      Local magistrate Nelson Gibbs ruled he had no jurisdiction and refused to hold any of the slaves. According to the later law suit four of the nine slaves were returned to Daggs, but how is not explained. Daggs, not satisfied with this, sued 19 of the Quakers for $10,000, claiming the financial damage for the loss of the loss of the other five slaves.

     Though Rorer was a former slave owner and Ralph Montgomery's champion he represented Daggs with zeal and passion. In his closing argument he did express concern for people in bondage: "I do not complain of it -- I, too, have feelings of sympathy -- nor do I complain of the offices of humanity which such feelings may have dictated, but our sympathy should manumit our own, and not other people's slaves." He called on jurors to recognize the U.S. Constitution, which Iowa agreed to follow by becoming a state, and did not at that time prohibit slavery. He stated: "Shall we now repudiate the contract we have made? Shall we be the first to violate it ... when we have ourselves sanctioned the institution of slavery, by entering, with full knowledge, into a contract of which it forms part?"

     Daggs was awarded a hefty sum of $2,900 against five of the defendants. But according to the Iowa Law Review, he never collected. The law review also noted:  "After five years of litigation, Daggs remained uncompensated for the loss of his slaves. In a final blow, the judge ordered Daggs to pay $33.56 in court costs."

      In June 1855, Rorer defended a person detained and presumed by a man hunter to be a fugitive slave out of Missouri. The townspeople of Burlington demanded the slave catcher prove "Dick" was the fugitive they sought. The issue went before Judge George Frazee but ended quickly when the slave owner's son could not identify "Dick."

     David Rorer left a historic mark on the state of Iowa. He appeared 163 times before the Iowa Territorial and State Supreme Court, he wrote several legal reference books and is credited with branding Iowans as Hawkeyes, a nickname he favored. According to the Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: "the attorney wrote several letters to Iowa newspapers. He signed each, "A Wolverine among the Hawkeyes." Rorer also complimented Iowans as "hospitable Hawkeyes" and praised "the enterprise and industry of the Hawkeye farmer."

     Six years later Abraham Lincoln was president and the north and south were beginning their bitter struggle. During the Civil War Rorer's true views on slavery came to light when he switched from Democrat to Republican and advocated for emancipation.

     David Rorer died in 1884 at the age of 78.

      In 1910 an edition of the Morning Sun News stated: "As these letters contained many criticisms of prominent men, including public officers of the territory, they created much interest and the name 'Hawkeye' was ever after adopted to designate the people of Iowa."

      Despite the fact David Rorer was a slave owner himself and represented slave owners during his career as an attorney were it not for his defense of Ralph Montgomery and others, and were it not for Rorer advocating for emancipation the freedom and civil rights in the then Iowa territory and now state of Iowa would not have progressed as they have.

References:

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA, University of Iowa Press Digital Editions, Rorer, David, (May 12, 1806–July 7, 1884)

University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Sequoyah Research Center, David Rorer

AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum Archive, David Rorer

To Go Free A Treasury of Iowa's Legal Heritage, Richard Lord Acton, Patricia Nassif Acton, Iowa State University Press/Ames, 1995:














































Previous articles in the series:
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Introduction
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, History and Introduction
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1619
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1846
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1861
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1863
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1864
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1865
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1865 to 1990
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1990's
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 1990 to Present
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, Artifacts, Book and CD
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 2002
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, Celebrations and Photos
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 2003 to 2004
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 2009 to 2010
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, 2012 to 2015
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Juneteenth, Flags
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, Introduction
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, Iowa Civil Rights Timeline
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1839
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1868
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1869
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1873
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1884
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1925
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1905 to 1940
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1930
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1948
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1949
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1965
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1967
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1968
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1970
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1972
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1979
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1980
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 1990
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 2007
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, 2009
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Working Toward Equality, Resolving Conflicts/The Work Continues
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Two Controversial Decisions, Thesis and a Brief History of the Iowa Territory
Freedom and Civil Rights in Iowa: Two controversial Decisions, The Story of Ralph Montgomery