The Path to Freedom

Lord Mansfield Photo Credit- National Portrait Gallery

Lord Mansfield Photo Credit- National Portrait Gallery

It started with a simple legal writ – Habeas Corpus, in 1771. In the case of Somerset versus Stewart, 9th December, with application by his God-parents, former slave James Somerset had been bought by his master, Charles Stewart in Boston, Massachusetts before bringing him to England two years previously, where he had been Christened; Somerset had shortly afterwards absconded. He was caught in November of 1771 following which Stewart ordered Somerset to be locked up under guard of Captain John Knowles aboard his ship Ann and Mary which was shortly bound for Jamaica. Stewart’s intention had been and still was to sell his slave when they reached the colony. Somerset’s supporters applied for the writ based on what was felt to be an unlawful imprisonment.

On 9th December, Knowles brought Somerset before the bench of the King’s Chief Justice, William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, who after hearing both testimonies, and those of witnesses, supporters and legal teams, withdrew to deliberate, adjourning the hearing until the new year. He eventually ruled in June of 1772 following months of hearings and deliberation that although Somerset was by right of property as per the slavery laws of the British Colonies, a slave, once in England, where slavery and owning a person by way of livestock, was not compatible with English Common Law nor recognised in any Parliamentary Law, and therefore the practice of slavery was unlawful.

Both counsels argued their case on legal terms rather than humanitarian grounds, with Somerset’s representation arguing that it was against English Law for a man to enslave himself and a contract of slavery was not binding if a man had not entered into the contract freely. Stewart’s legal advisors claimed that should the precedent be carried, around 15,000 slaves would need be released in Britain and this result would be a dangerous one. Lord Mansfield advised Stewart to reach the decision to allow Somerset his freedom, thereby removing the necessity for him to make a ruling on the matter.

In the end, Mansfield ordered that Stewart could not force Somerset to be removed from England against his will. Although a narrow ruling, in itself it still have the defining factor of changing the way chattel slaves were regarded as property or people, as Mansfield in effect stated that nobody, regardless of being a slave or otherwise, could be forced to leave England against his will. His judgement appeared partially to rest in chattel slaves as property was not supported in common law, promoted by the common held theory that as soon as a slave entered England, or became christened, he was free. Despite the ruling, however, slaves continued to be bought and sold within the British Isles, and runaway slaves were still captured in England.

Newspaper article on the Sommersett case Photo credit- Google Images

Newspaper article on the Sommersett case Photo credit- Google Images

The longer term effect, however, was a huge step towards the abolition of slavery. The consensus was that the ruling stated in essence, no man was a slave in England. This was played out just four short years later, when the case appeared to directly contribute to the issue of separatism particularly with regard to law and government in the 13 colonies of North America, on both sides of the slave argument. As independence was declared and fought over from 1776 into the 1780s, several of the Northern states chose abolition; Vermont was the first in 1777, followed by Pennsylvania (1780), Massachusetts (1783) and Connecticut (1784). Massachusetts Chief Justice stated:

‘ As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle, that (it is true) has been heretofore countenanced by the Province Laws formerly, but nowhere is it expressly enacted or established. It has been a usage — a usage which took its origin from the practice of some of the European nations, and the regulations of British government respecting the then Colonies, for the benefit of trade and wealth. But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses-features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal — and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property — and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature, unless his liberty is forfeited by some criminal conduct or given up by personal consent or contract …’

Meanwhile in the South, slavery continued to thrive as a result of the continuing major cash crops of cotton and tobacco being the primary source of revenue. Paradoxically, the very same constitution with its amendment declaring “all men are born free and equal” also prevented Federal interference in state laws on slavery.

The abolition movement set the ball rolling almost immediately following the ruling, when in 1787 the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded. With highly publicized support from high profile members of society, by 1807, the movement had gained 35-40 seats in British Parliament, and was led by Prominent member William Wilberforce, who wrote in his diary:

“God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”

In 1806, following the death of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, the nation was now led by William Wyndham Grenville, of the Ministry of all the talents. Grenville successfully pushed the Abolition bill through the House of Lords, whilst his fellow member and Foreign Secretary Charles James Fox, took it to the House of Commons. As a result of their recent Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, 100 Irish MPs had joined Parliament, who for their own reasons based on past experiences, were supportive of abolition. It was enough to get the bill passed with a staggering 283 votes for and just 16 against. Sadly, Fox did not live long enough to see the Bill gain Royal Assent by King George III, who famously spent much time at loggerheads with Fox.

Royal Assent was officially received and the Act passed on 25th March 1807. The Atlantic slave trade was over in Britain and her colonies. Of course, this didn’t mean that Slavery was abolished, just that the trade of slaves was no longer allowed. But it was a step in the right direction. And a major one for Britain, who were ironically one of the original instigators and the biggest dealer for over 200 years in the African Trade Triangle. From this point she would go all out to use her international influence to engender similar change in other countries she was associated with.

In the same month – March 1807, as the bill to abolish the slave trade in Britain was passed, America having cited in 1798 Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution to forbid the closing of the slave trade for ten years, until 1808, abolished a year early, the external slave trade. Internal trade was still permitted although particularly in the North, the trade was dying a natural death, as the industrialization of the Northern states meant that the use of slaves was no longer considered necessary or indeed desirable.
I hope you enjoyed the first part of this journey into the end of slavery. In Part Two, I will discuss the continuing drive for abolition and the effects this had on the countries involved.

Phoebe