The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Eighteen: The Somerset Decision


A Boston man, one Charles Stewart, had transported his slave, James Somerset, to London in 1770. Two years later Somerset escaped but was recaptured and ordered to be sold into slavery in Jamaica (1).

By the way, to understand the significance of that proposed punishment (bring sold into slavery in Jamaica), you have to understand that the conditions of slavery were far harsher in the Caribbean than obtained on the North American mainland. We might use, as an analogy, the threat of banishment to Siberia in the Soviet era.

British abolitionists, led by Granville Sharp, won a suit to prevent Somerset from being taken from England in June of 1772. London's Lord Chief Justice Mansfield handed down the decision that Somerset could not be forced to return to slavery in the colonies (2).

Now, many African-Americans had interpreted that decision to mean that England had outlawed slavery. The historians James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton believe that this point of view was a misreading of Lord Chief's Mansfield's ruling. However, even many people in Britain, including British "slaves" thought that England had just outlawed slavery (3).

As a consequence, "slaves" in Britain, particularly London, walked away from their masters. Many masters even believed that the government had effectively abolished the institution of slavery (4).

It was even the case that some American slaves became aware of the decision and acted on it, also assuming that England had abolished slavery. When one Virginia slave fled his master, some speculated that he would get on a ship for Britain, which came to be seen as a safe haven for fugitive slaves (5).

The historian Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina was quoted thusly: "England took on the aura of a land whose soil was too free to abide slavery, and whose air was too free to breathe it" (6). In part 19 we will do what we can to test the moral integrity of England's position.

There a few things to say about all of this, before we drill down into the "nitty gritty," as it were.

First of all, those of you who have been following this series, know that actual slavery (not indentured servitude) had been prohibited by English law since 1550 (when Parliament repealed an emergency measure, which had been put in place to address a massive social crisis that had gripped England in the 1530s, which had allowed slavery) (7).

The law against actual slavery (not indentured servitude) had been "on the books," since 1550 but not effectively enforced. Still, what that means is that the settlers on the North American mainland, had been technically in violation of English common law for nearly two and a quarter centuries up to the point of the 1772 decision.

Furthermore, I came across a tiny particle of evidence suggesting that the North American settlers knew they were breaking English law, by actually enslaving Africans, but decided to go ahead anyway.

The Pennsylvania colony was founded by William Penn, who was also its first governor. He initially proposed a system of African indentured servitude instead of African enslavement, by which to build up the colony. Land grants would be given to the Africans after 14 years of service (as opposed to the usual 5-7). But we are informed that before the end of the 1680s, Pennsylvania's demand for labor was so great that Penn abandoned his plan in favor of slavery (8).

It seems to me that Penn's initial idea was a compromise proposal. On the one hand he wants to stay within the letter of English law, by proposing African indenture instead of actual, lifetime enslavement. On the other hand he was giving a nod to what had been routine settler practice in their treatment of African labor, by proposing that African un-free laborers work for twice the amount of time that European un-free laborers were asked to put in.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, it was quite clear that African un-free laborers were treated differently and more harshly than English bonded laborers; and were, in fact, already being held for lifetime service (9).

Historian Winthrop D. Jordan: "In the last quarter of the seventeenth century the trend was to treat Negroes more like property and less like men, to send them to the fields at younger ages, to deny them automatic existence as inherent members of the community, to tighten the bonds on their personal and civil freedom, and correspondingly to loosen the traditional restraints on the master's freedom to deal with his human property as he saw fit" (10).

It feels like William Penn was trying to prevent his people from walking down a certain road. It feels like he was trying to keep his fellow Brits from stepping into the abyss, doing damage to their own souls as well as completely shutting off the freedom of other human beings.

In part 19 we will think about why the settlers turned to the exclusive use of enslaved African labor, why they decided to willfully break English common law. Why didn't they just stay with the labor system of indentured servitude?

If the Somerset decision was a signal of England's intention to abolish slavery, then we will have to deal with the contradiction of England's previous involvement with the slave trade. This will also concern us in part 19.

The Somerset decision was a big deal!

When the FBI goes after a Top Ten fugitive, or something, and finds him in a foreign country, they have to make arrangements with the authorities of the host nation, to extradite the suspect back to the United States.

Now, many countries in the world had abandoned the death penalty decades ago. The United States still has the death penalty. It may come to pass, one day, that an FBI Wanted Top Ten fugitive escapes to a country which does not have the penalty.

Now then, 'x' country will not extradite to the United States, because they do not have the death penalty and America does. For these countries to send a suspect back, under those conditions which their own public policy had long ago given up, would be like breaking their own laws. They feel like they cannot, in good public policy conscience, send a suspect back to have his life taken by any government.

In order to get him back, the United States has to assure 'x' nation that, in that particular case, the American prosecutorial authorities will not seek the death penalty for the suspect in question.

The authorities from colonial America would not have had a leg to stand on. What could they have said to get James Somerset back? (Give him back to us. We promise not to re-enslave him)?

The decision also negated the settlers authority to send Somerset to Jamaica in punishment for running away from slavery.

It is as though England---as spoken for through its judiciary---is declaring that it considers the condition of slavery, in both the North American mainland and Jamaica for that matter, as somehow, an illegitimate state of being to which to return James Somerset.

I'll leave it there. Let's push on to part nineteen.

Thank you for reading!



1. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 56

2. ibid

3. ibid,

4. ibid, 56-57

5. ibid, 57

6. ibid

7. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 51-52

8. Horton, James Oliver & Horton, Lois E. Slavery And The Making Of America. Oxford University Press, 2005. 35

9. Horton & Horton, 29; Jordan, W., 62

10. Jordan, W. White Over Black. 82

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cam8510 profile image

cam8510 18 months ago from Columbus, Georgia until the end of November 2016.

Great, historical hub. There's a new twist in history, that slavery had been outlawed in 1550, and some of the early American settlers knew it. Thanks for shining some light on this fact.

I had no idea you were writing a series like this. I'll try to keep up, and do my best to catch up. Up and shared.

wingedcentaur profile image

wingedcentaur 18 months ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! Author

Thanks, cam! I hope it is not too boring for you.

Take care!

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