Throwback Thursday–Somerset v. Stewart

throwback thursday

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a Throwback Thursday post. I’m going to try to do them once a month. My post on Monday has somewhat set the tone for my posts this week. I looked at the opening of Mansfield Park this Monday, so it was only right that the Wordless Wednesday post is of Lord Mansfield and the Throwback Thursday post be about his landmark case, Somerset v. Stewart.

The short story is that James Somerset was an enslaved person in the American Colonies and purchased in Boston by a Charles Stewart, a British customs officer. Somerset was brought to England in 1769. In 1771, Somerset escaped and was eventually captured. He was then imprisoned by Stewart and destined for the slave auction in Jamaica. During his time in England, he was baptized in the Anglican faith, and his three godparents petitioned on his behalf that his imprisonment was illegal.

While Somerset’s side gathered evidence, the case drew the notice of famed abolitionists. They argued that no common law nor positive law (meaning a legislated statute) enacted slavery on English soil. The opponents argued that property ownership was the basis for English law and freeing all slaves in England would be dangerous.

After a month of consideration, John Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, rendered this verdict:

The only question then is, Is the cause returned sufficient for the remanding him? If not, he must be discharged.

The cause returned is, the slave absented himself, and departed from his master’s service, and refused to return and serve him during his stay in England; whereupon, by his master’s orders, he was put on board the ship by force, and there detained in secure custody, to be carried out of the kingdom and sold. So high an act of dominion must derive its authority, if any such it has, from the law of the kingdom where executed. A foreigner cannot be imprisoned here on the authority of any law existing in his own country: the power of a master over his servant is different in all countries, more or less limited or extensive; the exercise of it, therefore, must always be regulated by the laws of the place where exercised.

The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of now being introduced by Courts of Justice upon mere reasoning or inferences from any principles, natural or political; it must take its rise from positive law; the origin of it can in no country or age be traced back to any other source: immemorial usage preserves the memory of positive law long after all traces of the occasion; reason, authority, and time of its introduction are lost; and in a case so odious as the condition of slaves must be taken strictly, the power claimed by this return was never in use here; no master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever; we cannot say the cause set forth by this return is allowed or approved of by the laws of this kingdom, therefore the black must be discharged.

The Somerset v. Stewart case was ruled on June 22, 1772. In 1785, Lord Mansfield ruled that a slave who had been brought to England was not entitled to poor relief upon the death of her master because she had never been hired. Despite the groundbreaking work of the Somerset case, Mansfield later made it clear that he did not intend to rule that slavery was illegal on English soil, only that no one but the government could forcefully compel a person to leave and that in that case, slave status was nullified. In the case of poor relief, such laws were legislated and had clear legal parameters to operate in.

Unfortunately, the Somerset case meant little in the grand scheme of the international slave trade. It was but a stepping stone. However, if a legislated law was required to establish slavery, it could also be revoked. This meant that Parliament could, theoretically, have the right to abolish the slave trade and even the practice of slavery entirely. Such legislation would not infringe upon a British citizen’s right to property.

Eventually, the slave trade was outlawed in the Empire in 1807. Slavery would not be abolished in the United Kingdom and its Empire until 1833 and take the tireless work of many, many more.

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