Mansfield and ending slavery in England

Paul Mark Sandler//May 10, 2023

Mansfield and ending slavery in England

By Paul Mark Sandler

//May 10, 2023

Lord William Mansfield (1705-1793), chief justice of the King’s Bench from 1756 -1776, is considered the most outstanding English jurist of all time. His scholarship and clarity in writing opinions while on the bench were valued then and still are to this day. The U.S. Supreme Court has cited Mansfield decisions over 330 times in cases throughout almost every area of law. See Norman S. Poser, “Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason.:

Notwithstanding a growing opposition to slavery in England during the 18th century, an average of 75,000 slaves a year were transported across the Atlantic, totaling 12 million between the 16th and 19th centuries. Id. at 286-87.

In the 1770s, with thousands of slaves in England, those in opposition to slavery presented the idea that if a slave were baptized, freedom was conferred. But this idea was rejected by the attorney general. Id. at 287. Mansfield, while leaning toward the view that slavery should be abolished, had no occasion to rule one way or the other. In 1771, one case involved a former escaped slave, Thomas Lewis, who claimed he had been freed. A jury ruled in favor of Lewis. Mansfield did present jury instructions favorable to Lewis. Id. at 291-92.

But fate did not let Lord Mansfield off the hook. The so-called Somerset case arose in 1772 and became a cause célèbre. Mansfield’s ruling in May of that year freed a slave and helped advance the movement to abolish slavery in England. The facts of the case are as follows:

A Scottish merchant, Charles Stewart, brought his slave, James Somerset, from Boston to England in 1769. In 1771, Somerset was baptized. Then two months later, Somerset escaped but was captured. He refused to return to Stewart and was imprisoned, and then was chained on a ship anchored in the Thames. He was to be taken to Jamaica to be sold.

But sympathetic abolitionists intervened and filed a writ of habeas corpus. Id. at 292. The facts of the case framed the question of whether slavery was legal in England. Trial commenced in February 1772.  Due to lengthy arguments by both sides and adjournments by Mansfield for efforts by counsel for settlement, in June, Mansfield rendered his opinion:

“So high an act of dominion must be recognized by the law of the Country where it is used. The power of a master over his slave has been extremely different in different countries. The state of slavery is of such a nature that is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law… It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, may follow from a decision I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore (James Somerset) must be discharged.” Id. at 296.

Following the decision, the crowds in the courtroom became chaotic and boisterous. While some expressed the view that Mansfield ended slavery, he did not. Rather his eloquent writing avoided specifically declaring slavery to be abolished.

But it is universally said that Mansfield, as he expressed in the above excerpt from his opinion in Somerset, truly influenced Parliament to eventually abolish slavery via the Slavery Abolishment Act in 1833. The Somerset opinion was called the opening act of the anti-slavery drama, which set England on the course to abolish both the slave trade and domestic slavery. Id. at 298

Another case decided by Lord Mansfield was the infamous 1783 Zong case, regarding a slave ship that lost its way and was running out of drinking water. To lighten the load and save water, 150 slaves were thrown overboard to drown. The ship’s owner sued the insurer of the ship for the value of the slaves thrown overboard.

The jury ruled against the insurer on the basis that the loss of the slaves was the result of normal perils of the sea. Id. at 298. On appeal, Mansfield ruled there had to be a new trial because the ship’s owner had not shown that it was necessary to throw the slaves overboard. Although the new trial never occurred, Mansfield effectively overruled the decision of the jury.

For interest and entertainment, I suggest seeing the movie “Belle,” which relates the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of Mansfield’s nephew and a black slave, whom he and his wife raised from childhood and became part of the Mansfield family. The wonderful treatment of Dido over many years suggests that Lord Mansfield was not an advocate of slavery.

His watershed opinion in Somerset reveals his conservative approach to the law. While he did not favor slavery, he was not comfortable specifically declaring it illegal.

Paul Mark Sandler, trial attorney and author, can be reached at [email protected]




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