James Somerset was taken from Virginia to England and then bound to return by his master, who planned to sell him off in the West Indian slave market. Thereon hangs a tale. For those of us on this side of the Atlantic, it makes fascinating reading. In the late 1700s, an abolitionist groundswell was growing in England, as our ex-oppressors took the legal steps necessary to free human beings whom we Americans would not emancipate for almost one hundred years more.
Steven M. Wise, author and law professor, has laid out in explicit detail the account of the trial of James Somerset, a man who was lucky enough to breathe free air. The air of England. His case rested on that exercise of respiration.
Villeinage, or the practice of near-slavery, had been recognized as untenable under English law. Feudalism was long gone when Somerset’s case came to the docket. It had been declared that a person who came to England was a free person as soon as he (or she?) set foot on free soil. This in spite of the bald fact that the general public was so sugar-starved that harvesting cane in the Indies was deemed a necessity, and the threat of the loss of slave labor hacked at the deepest roots of the English economy.
The verdict for Somerset was famously decided by Judge Lord Mansfield, who “walked the streets, visited the wealthiest and most dignified homes, and knew there were blacks everywhere, many of whom belonged to friends and social equals.” The case put a monetary as well as moral value on human life, and he knew that the stakes were high – higher than the liberty of one man. Mansfield harbored his own family skeleton – his own niece was also his mulatto slave.
Granville Sharp, who headed Somerset’s “dream team,” was characterized as “extraordinarily persistent.” Though rabidly anti-Catholic and anti-Quaker, Sharp made a philosophical match-up with an American Quaker who had the temerity to publish a tract stating that “blacks were…the intellectual and moral equals of whites.” It was a view that Sharp didn’t share, but he could use it.
The decision in favor of the defendant was made “though the heavens may fall” and led to greater freedom for blacks in England than in the English former colonies, a fact that will leave many scratching their heads in wonder. Mansfield’s opinion:
“Every man who comes into England is entitled to the protection of English law, whatever oppression he may heretofore have suffered, and whatever may be the color of his skin…let the negro be discharged.”
One portion of the Wise’s book could have been lifted from today's press: “Lawyers and judges had been under assault for decades, charged with exacting exhorbitant costs, with speaking and writing incomprehehnsibly, single-mindedly catering to wealth, and unreasonably delaying litigation” (circa 1770).