Somerset (Somersett), a black slave, had been brought to England, in November, 1769, by his master, Mr. Charles Stewart, and in process of time left him. Stewart found an opportunity of seizing him unawares; and he was conveyed on board the Ann and Mary, Captain Knowles, in order to be carried to Jamaica, and there to be sold for a slave.
Mr. Serjeant Davy brought the case into court before Lord Mansfield on the 24th of January, but professed the cause to be of so high importance, that he requested it might be deferred till another term in order to give him time to prepare fully for its support.
This request Lord Mansfield declined granting, but fixed the hearing for that day fortnight, apprising Serjeant Davy at the same time, that “if it should come fairly to the general question, whatever the opinion of the court might be, even if they were all agreed on one side or the other, the subject was of so general and extensive concern, that, from the nature of the question, he should certainly take the opinion of all the judges upon it.”
On the 7th of February the case was a gain brought before Lord Mansfield, assisted by the three justices, Ashton, Willes, and Ashurst. The cause of liberty was now no longer to be tried on the ground of a mere special indictment, but on the broad principle of the essential and constitutional right of every man in England to the liberty of his person, unless forfeited by the laws of England.
It was opened by Mr. Serjeant Davy, with a vast mass of information on the subject of slavery, prefaced by a declaration of his intention to maintain before the court the following proposition; “That no man at this day is, or can be a slave in England.”
Mr. Serjeant Glynn followed on the same side, and at the conclusion of his speech, Lord Mansfield, after some short questions, added, “This thing seems, by the arguments probable to go to a great length, and it is the end of the term; so it will be hardly possible to go though it without stopping; therefore, let it stand over to the next term.”
On the 4th of May, the question was again brought before the Court, on the broad and general ground “Whether a Slave, by coming into England, becomes free?”
On this second reading, the pleadings in favour of Somerset (Somersett) were resumed by Mr. Mansfield, who, in a speech of strong sense and expression, contended, that if the Negro Somerset was a man – and he should conclude him one till the court should adjudge otherwise – it was impossible he could be a slave in England, unless by the introduction of some species of property unknown to our constitution.
At the end of Mr. Mansfield’s speech, it appears that the cause was further adjourned to the 14th of May. The expectation of all parties was now raised to the utmost pitch, when finally, in Trinity term, on Monday the 22d of June, “The court proceeded to give judgment in the case of Somerset the Negro, then before the court, on the motion of the Habeas Corpus.” And the ever memorable result of this trial established the following axiom, that, as soon as any slave sets his foot on English ground, he becomes free. A sentence to be engraved for ever on our hearts.
Collection: African American Newspapers
Publication: Freedom’s Journal
Date: November 30, 1827
Title: Case of Somerset (Somersett)
Location: New York, New York
Lord Mansfield’s Judgement†
Lord Mansfield gave his judgment on 22 June 1772 (this version is transcribed from a newspaper report, with modern paragraphing).
We pay due attention to the opinion of Sir Philip York and Mr. Talbot in the year 1729, by which they pledged themselves to the British planters for the legal consequences of bringing slaves into this kingdom, or their being baptized; which opinion was repeated and recognized by Lord Hardwicke, sitting as Chancellor on the 19th of October, 1749, to the following effect: he said, that trover would lay for a negro slave; that a notion prevailed, that if a slave came into England, or became a Christian, he thereby became emancipated; but there was no foundation in law for such a notion; that when he and Lord Talbot were Attorney and Solicitor General, this notion of a slave becoming free by being baptized prevailed so strongly, that the planters industriously prevented their becoming Christians; upon which their opinion was taken, and upon their best consideration they were both clearly of opinion, that a slave did not in the least alter his situation or state toward his master or owner, either by being christened, or coming to England; that though the statute of Charles II had abolished tenure so far, that no man could be a villein regerdane [sic], yet if he would acknowledge himself a villein engrossed in any Court of Record, he knew of no way by which he could be entitled to his freedom without the consent of his master.
We feel the force of the inconveniences and consequences that will follow the decision of this question. Yet all of us are so clearly of one opinion upon the only question before us, that we think we ought to give judgment, without adjourning the matter to be argued before all the Judges, as usual in the Habeas Corpus, and as we at first intimated an intention of doing in this case. 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 man must be discharged.
Somersett was freed, and his supporters, who included both black and white Londoners, immediately celebrated a great victory. Whilst argument by counsel may have been based primarily on legal technicalities, Lord Mansfield appeared to believe that a great moral question had been posed, and he deliberately avoided answering that question in full, because of its profound political and economic consequences. Lord Mansfield is often misquoted as declaring that “The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe”, but no such words appear in the judgment. Instead, they are part of the arguments of counsel for Somersett, who cited a report of a case from 1569, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.