Ralph was a slave from Missouri. In 1834, he bought his freedom from his owner, a man named J. Montgomery, so he could come to Iowa to work in the lead mines near Dubuque. The cost of his independence was to be $550, plus interest. But after five years, Ralph had not earned enough money to make the payments, and two bounty hunters from Virginia offered to seize and return him to Montgomery for $100. Getting the proper paperwork, they seized him and were taking him to a steamship when an Iowa farmer, a man named Alexander Butterworth, learned of the action and went to the local judge, Thomas Wilson.
Judge Wilson stopped the men and suggested the matter should be heard by the Supreme Court of the Territory, on which he sat. Iowa’s three high court justices heard the case and, on July 4, 1839, ruled in Ralph’s favor. In their decision, the justices stated that Ralph should pay his debt but ruled that “no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery” and that Montgomery had lost his right over Ralph in Iowa. The justices wrote: “When, in seeking to accomplish his object, [the claimant] illegally restrains a human being of his liberty, it is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should intervene.” The decision, In Re[gards to] the Matter of Ralph, was the very first ruling handed down by the Iowa Supreme Court. It was issued more than seven years before Iowa became a state. It confirmed Iowa’s position as a free territory, and it was the first of many High Court rulings that preserved and advanced the causes of freedom, equality and diversity within our borders.
In 1847, the Iowa Legislature embraced those causes when it adopted Iowa’s motto: “Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.”