Let Justice Be Done, Though the Heavens May Fall: The Law of Freedom
46 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2009
Date Written: 1994
In May 1772 Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench in England, heard preliminary arguments in the case of James Somerset, a Virginia slave who claimed his freedom under English common law. Charles Stewart, Somerset's master, wanted to send the slave to Jamaica to be sold. Somerset sought a writ of habeas corpus to escape this fate. This action brought the legality of slavery before the highest court in Great Britain.
This case would serve as the precedent for freeing slaves in a number of jurisdictions outside of Great Britain. Yet, Somerset did not bring immediate freedom to all slaves in England; as late as the 1830s at least some blacks were probably enslaved in Great Britain. And, Somerset surely had little immediate impact on most of the Empire, where slavery existed for another half century.
Keywords: Somerset, Mansfield
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