The Somerset Case


According to Lord Mansfield, the presiding judge in the Somerset case, the question that the Court had to answer was ‘…Whether any dominion, authority or coercion can be exercised in this country, on a slave according to the American laws?’ In his decision on 22 June 1772, in effect preventing the forced return of James Somerset to the West Indies to be resold, Lord Mansfield stated:

‘The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law,…It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.’

The implications of the judgement in the Somerset case were far-reaching, but were not what many slaves believed them to be. It did not emancipate them, or free them to work for any employer once in Britain. What it did do was remove the element of compulsion by providing slaves with the legal right not to be forcibly removed from the country.

These extracts are taken from the trial report of the Somerset case. The first extract briefly gives the background. The second reports Lord Mansfield’s decision, as well as some of the matters considered by him before reaching judgement.

Howell's State Trials, vol. 20, cols 1-6, 79-82 (1816)

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