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James Somersett

James Somerset was born enslaved in Africa in 1741 and known as a slave who challenged his status in an English court and in the process undermined the legality of  slavery in Great Britain. Captured as a young boy, he was taken to America on a  British slaver, arriving sometime in the spring of 1749. In-August, Charles Stewart or Steuart purchased Somerset, who was between eight and ten years old. In some accounts the surname is spelled, Somersett. 

Somerset lived in America for about two decades and then was taken to England in November 1769.  Unlike most bondsmen in Virginia, Somerset did not work in the tobacco fields. Rather, he was  Stewart's personal servant and valet. Stewart purchased fine clothing for Somerset, including silk  stockings, and gave him some spending money. Scattered records suggest that Stewart had some  affection for Somerset, treating him kindly, even generously, as a trusted servant and valet. Stewart  owned a few other slaves in Virginia, but Somerset was the only one he took with him when he traveled  to Massachusetts and other colonies.

In November 1769 Stewart moved to England, taking Somerset with him. Somerset continued as  Stewart's servant and valet. There is no indication that Stewart mistreated Somerset or physically  abused him. In February 1771 Somerset was baptized under the name of James Summersett, but he  later adopted the more conventional spelling, Somerset. In October  1771, Somerset left Stewart and refused to return. On 26 November 1771 Stewart had Somerset  seized, planning to ship him to the British Caribbean, where he would have been sold. However, this  never happened. Friends of Somerset contacted the British abolitionist Granville Sharp, who sought a  writ of habeas corpus from the Court of King's Bench. This case raised, for the first time, the status of  the fifteen thousand or so slaves then in Great Britain.

Chief Justice William Murray, Lord Mansfield, strenuously urged the parties to settle the case. Stewart did not take the hint. His lawyers were paid for by wealthy Britons connected to the sugar  trade who wanted to resolve the status of the slaves they brought to England. However, their lawyers  should have understood that Mansfield was not likely to decide in their favor, because he ended the May hearing by urging Stewart to free Somerset. At the June term Mansfield reviewed the case and reduced the issue to the simple and narrow question:  Could a slave owner maintain control of a slave in England, against the will of the slave? Mansfield  concluded he or she could not.

The meaning of Somerset's case has been contested. It did not lead to an immediate end to slavery in  Britain, and for the next half a century some slaves were taken there. But the case did give enslaved people in Britain a legal claim to freedom if they were savvy enough to make the claim. The case also created a  powerful precedent for the idea that slavery could only exist where positive law created it. Many American states adopted the Somerset precedent, freeing slaves that entered their jurisdiction.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected it in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).

Read the full, original biography by Paul Finkelman in the African American National Biography

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

Benjamin Franklin. “The Sommersett Case and the Slave Trade,” The London Chronicle, June 18–20, 1772,” in the United States National Archives https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-19-02-0128 

"Slave or Free,” British National Archives website. 
https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/
slave_free.htm

Bibliography

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (1975). 

 

Finkelman, Paul. An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (1981) 

 

Paley, Ruth. “After Somerset: Mansfield, Slavery, and the Law in England, 1772–1830,” in Law,  Crime, and English Society, 1660–1830, ed. Norma Landau (2002). 

 

Somerset v. Stewart, 1 Lofft 1, 20 Howell's State Trials 1, 98 Eng. Rep. 499 (1772, G. B. King's Bench). 

 

Weiner, Mark S. “New Biographical Evidence on Somerset's Case,” Slavery and Abolition 23  (Apr. 2002): 121. 

 

Wiecek, William M. The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1760–1848 (1977) 

 

Wise, Steven M. Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of  Human Slavery (2005)

Adapted by

Briona Jones and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Key Events

c. 1741

Born enslaved in Africa

1749

Captured as a young boy, he was taken to America on a British slaver

1769

Somerset was taken to England in November

1771

In February, Somerset was baptized under the name of James Summersett, but he later adopted the more conventional spelling, Somerset. The church records described him as an “adult black” aged “about thirty.”

1771

On November 26, Stewart had Somerset seized, planning to ship him to the British Caribbean, where he would have been sold. However, this never happened.

1772

Both Somerset and Stewart appear in court with Chief Justice William Murray, Lord Mansfield (May). In June, at the June term Mansfield reviewed the case and reduced the issue to the simple and narrow question: Could a slave owner maintain control of a slave in England, against the will of the slave? Mansfield concluded he or she could not.