Collateral Damage: An Elizabeth City County Debt Case

Debt collateral usually consists of something prized by both parties. As a temporary form of payment, something of value is offered to hold or use as a lien until the debt is paid. In the mid-1800s, lenders considered enslaved persons to be prime collateral because their ownership represented wealth.  In many cases, however, lenders exploited these debt arrangements to the detriment of the borrower. Enslaved persons used as collateral were often abused or simply sought for their monetary value. Such was the case with Thomas Phillips, a slave owner pressured to leave his enslaved people behind as a surety for unsettled obligations to a creditor named N. C. Giddings.

By all indications, Phillips was a financially upright man who seemed to take full responsibility for his debt. Phillips voluntarily submitted a trust deed in Elizabeth City County (now the City of Hampton) in 1859 to use two enslaved people as collateral. Although the debt value is not given, one might reasonably assume that the amount was substantial given Phillips’s willingness to place his valuable human property in jeopardy. To make matters worse, heightened tension between the country’s northern and southern sections increased the likelihood that authorities could seize these enslaved people, leaving Phillips with little hope of their return.

Upon executing the deed, Phillips attempted to relocate to Richmond, but N. C. Giddings balked at the enslaved people moving from Elizabeth City County. Again, abiding by the rules, Phillips agreed to leave the two enslaved people to work in the county, while he received the rewards of their labor from afar. This produced an excellent opportunity for N. C. Giddings.

With Phillips away, Giddings forced the enslaved man named George to go with him to Roanoke Island, North Carolina. George, valued at $1,200, endured hard labor for nearly three years while Giddings received the profit. By the time that Phillips discovered the sham, federal troops, empowered by the now fully declared Civil War, had already seized George.

The unauthorized use of George’s labor and Giddings’s profiting by it triggered Phillips’s lawsuit.  The Elizabeth City County chancery court initially believed that, had Phillips taken George with him to Richmond, he could have sold him and gained enough money to pay off the debt owed to N. C. Giddings. Phillips sought to obtain $1,200, which was equal to the amount Giddings earned from George’s labor in Roanoke Island. The lawsuit, however, would end with a very different twist.

Surprisingly, it emerged that Phillips had prior knowledge of N. C. Giddings’s use of George at Roanoke Island. Dorothea Giddings, the administratrix for N. C. Giddings, testified that Phillips not only knew of the work in Roanoke Island, but also disposed of the other enslaved person in Richmond despite the trust deed or lien placed on both people as collateral. Testimony also revealed that Phillips knew the risk of allowing N. C. Giddings to take George to Roanoke Island in the midst of an influx of federal troops.

Given the testimony from Dorothea Giddings revealing Phillips’s knowledge of George’s labor and Phillips’s unscrupulousness in secretly getting rid of the other enslaved person in Richmond, the court dismissed the suit. In the end, Phillips and N. C. Giddings walked away with only minor inconveniences, and a distasteful disregard for both enslaved persons as “collateral damage.”

Thomas Phillip vs. Admx. of N. C. Giddings, 1868-001 is part of the Elizabeth City chancery causes.  The images are available on the Chancery Records Index (CRI). Their processing and scanning were made possible through the innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP), a cooperative program between the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Court Clerks Association (VCCA), which seeks to preserve the historic records found in Virginia’s circuit courts.

 

–Sherri Bagley, Local Records Archivist

Posted by in Chancery Court Blog Posts, Civil War-Related Posts.

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