Howell v. Netherland was a Virginia case about the child of an interracial sexual union. Decided in April 1770, Howell opens with the account of the plaintiff’s grandmother, “a mulatto, begotten on a white woman by a negro man, after the year 1705, and bound by the churchwardens, under the law of that date, to serve to the age of thirty-one.” The plaintiff, Howell, sued Netherland for his freedom. Netherland had purchased Howell from a previous owner, who had also owned Howell’s mother and grandfather.
A twenty-seven-year-old Thomas Jefferson served as Howell’s attorney. He argued inter alia that Howell’s grandmother was white, but more importantly that “under the law of nature, all men are born free.” This position makes Howell a precursor to the landmark Somerset case in 1772. “This is what is called personal liberty,” Jefferson says of freedom under the law of nature, “and is given him by the author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.” Jefferson adds that “every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.” Such language, coming six years before the Declaration of Independence and eleven years before the first edition of Notes on the State of Virginia, is striking for its seeming emphasis on equality under the natural law.
Jefferson’s opposing counsel in this case was George Wythe, the man who had trained Jefferson in legal practice and who arguably did more during his lifetime than Jefferson to oppose the institution of slavery. In this case, however, Wythe remains the steadfast defender of a slave owner. This fact should remind us of the contingencies of lawyering and the conditions and qualifications that attach to any line of reasoning or rhetoric appearing in court documents about slavery.
When we review archives from the era of slavery in America, we must remember that a lawyer’s words cannot be taken as representative of his thoughts or worldview: he is a participant in a legal contest and advocating for the interests of his client. What Jefferson or Wythe thought about slavery cannot be deduced from this case, so attempts at such deduction should not be made.
 Howell v. Netherland, Jefferson 90, April 1770, available in Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Vol. 1 (New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1968) at 90-91.
 Ibid., my italics.
 William G. Merkel, “Jefferson’s Failed Anti-Slavery Proviso of 1784 and the Nascence of Free Soil Constitutionalism,” 38 Seton Hall L. Rev. 555 (2008) at 559.