On this day in history, Lord Mansfield of the King’s Bench in England issued a ruling in the case of Somerset v. Stewart (98 ER 499, 1772) finding that slavery was unsupported by the common law in England and Wales.
James Somerset, a slave, was purchased by Charles Stewart, an English customs officer, when Stewart was in Boston. Stewart brought Somerset with him when he returned to England in 1769, but Somerset escaped. Stewart had him recaptured and imprisoned on a ship that was sailing for Jamaica, directing that Somerset be sold for labor upon his arrival.
Somerset’s three godparents from his baptism as a Christian in England made an application before the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus. The ship’s captain complied, and the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield, ordered a hearing for the following January. As arguments were being prepared, the case attracted a good deal of attention in the press, and money was donated to advocates on both sides. Granville Sharp, an abolitionist layman who continually sought test cases against the legal justifications for slavery, was Somerset’s main backer.
During the case, five advocates appeared for Somerset, speaking at three hearings between February and May. Somerset’s advocates argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any law made by Parliament recognized the existence of slavery. They also invoked contract law to argue that English contract law did not allow for any person to enslave himself, nor could any contract be binding without the person’s consent.
The two lawyers for Charles Stewart maintained that the sanctity of property was paramount and that it would be dangerous to free all the black people in England, who numbered at the time approximately 15,000.
After much deliberation, Lord Mansfield decreed:
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”
While Lord Mansfield narrowly limited his judgment to the issue of whether a person, regardless of being a slave, could be removed from England against his will, his pronouncement on the place of slavery in common law and natural law (versus positive law) marked a significant milestone in the campaign to abolish slavery throughout the world.
Despite the ruling, escaped slaves continued to be recaptured in England, and slaves continued to be bought and sold in the British Isles. Slavery continued in various parts of the British Empire until it was abolished by the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.