Somerset v. Stewart

The Dawn of Liberty

On June 22, 1772, William Murray, Baron of Mansfield and Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, ruled in the Somerset v. Stewart case that Charles Stewart could not forcibly transport James Somerset, an enslaved African, out of England. This verdict, issued 35 years before King George III of Great Britain signed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, had significant political and legal implications across Britain and its American colonies, marking a key moment in the abolitionist movement.

James Somerset was born around 1741 in West Africa and was captured and sold to Scottish merchant Charles Stewart in Norfolk, Virginia, at about eight years old. Stewart, who owned several enslaved individuals, relocated to England in 1769, bringing Somerset with him and selling or leasing his other enslaved people.

In England, Somerset’s errands for Stewart took him around London and into the countryside, exposing him to other black individuals and white abolitionists. In 1764, there were believed to be as many as 20,000 black people in London, though later, during Somerset’s case, Lord Mansfield put the number at around 15,000.

Ignatius Sancho, one of the few black individuals in late 18th-century Britain who lived an independent life

Ignatius Sancho, one of the few black individuals in late 18th-century Britain who lived an independent life. Born on a slave ship, he rose to become a composer and a literary celebrity.

Black communities, located primarily in London but also in cities like Bristol and Liverpool, likely facilitated Somerset’s contact with Thomas Walkin, Elizabeth Cade, and John Marlow, who became his godparents when he was baptized in August 1771. This baptism might have been driven by the belief that enslaved people who became Christians simultaneously became free.

On October 1, 1771, Somerset escaped from Stewart and refused to return. On November 26, Stewart had him kidnapped and detained on the ship Ann and Mary, awaiting transport to Jamaica to be sold for plantation labor. However, Somerset’s godparents applied for a writ of habeas corpus on December 3, a legal procedure to protect against unlawful detention.

“Habeas corpus,” meaning “you may have the body,” was a term from the Middle Ages used to bring prisoners to court. Since the 17th century, its purpose has been to protect against wrongful imprisonment by determining if a prisoner has received due process, rather than assessing guilt or innocence. Therefore, Somerset’s case was argued against John Knowles, the captain of the Ann and Mary, who was accused of unlawfully detaining Somerset.

Six days later, Captain Knowles presented him before the Court of King’s Bench, where Lord Mansfield was the presiding Chief Justice. A hearing was set for January 21, and Somerset was released on recognizance in the meantime.

During the case, Lord of Mansfield lived with his wife and two great-nieces, Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle. Dido, born in 1761 to an enslaved African woman and Mansfield’s nephew, was brought to England and placed in Mansfield’s care. As Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield was Britain’s most influential judge, implementing significant legal reforms that improved access to justice and modernized commercial, merchant, and common law.

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray by David Martin, c. 1778

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray by David Martin, c. 1778

Initially, he attempted to avoid hearing Somerset’s case by persuading Stewart to free Somerset, but Stewart and the West Indian planters financing his defense refused. Mansfield also tried to get Somerset’s godmother to buy his freedom, but she declined on principle. Aware of the case’s potential impact, Mansfield famously stated:

Let justice be done though the heavens fall.

Somerset’s case quickly became a pivotal test for the legality of slavery in England, capturing the attention of both abolitionists and investors in West Indian plantations. Funded by Granville Sharp, a philanthropist and early advocate for abolishing the slave trade in Britain, Somerset’s defense team faced strong opposition backed by West Indian planters.

During the trial, the opposing side argued that slavery was the modern successor to “villeinage,” a medieval system where a servant was bound to a lord without payment. They claimed this established a continuous legal tradition.

Somerset’s lawyers countered by describing villeinage as a hereditary servitude specific to English ancestry, which had long been extinct. They argued that no English laws supported slavery and that Virginia laws, which governed Somerset’s enslavement, did not apply in England. They also contended that Somerset could not be accused of breaching a contract because the fundamental condition for any contract—freedom for all parties to willingly enter into the agreement—was not satisfied.

William Murray, Baron (and later First Earl) of Mansfield by Jean Baptiste van Loo, c. 1737

William Murray, Baron (and later First Earl) of Mansfield by Jean Baptiste van Loo, c. 1737

Despite the complex legal arguments, Mansfield issued a narrow ruling, clarifying that “The only question before us is, whether the cause on the return is sufficient? If it is, the negro must be discharged.” He ruled that “a master could not seize a slave in England and detain him preparatory to sending him out of the realm to be sold.” This decision affirmed that habeas corpus protections applied to enslaved individuals, recognizing them as persons with limited constitutional rights, not mere property.

While Mansfield avoided ruling on the overall legal status of slavery in England, the decision was widely interpreted as effectively abolishing slavery in the country. This interpretation resonated strongly on both sides of the Atlantic. London’s black community, who had closely followed the case, celebrated the judgment, and Somerset himself seemed to adopt the broader interpretation of the ruling. He wrote to at least one enslaved person, encouraging him to seek freedom. This letter, written shortly after the ruling, is the last known evidence of James Somerset.

Words of wisdom

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” —Abraham Lincoln

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” —Nelson Mandela

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

“Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.” —Walter Elliot


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