Somerset v. Stewart

My next few entries will revolve around the former English highest court’s decision in Somerset v. Stewart. These entries will discuss the case as it relates to Ronald Dworkin’s writings, specifically (and to varying extents) those involving pragmatism, law as integrity, legitimacy, and community obligations.

It seems necessary to first have an understanding of what this case is about before commencing analysis, so a brief of the case can be found below. We’ll leave it there for today.

Somerset v. Stewart

LOFFT 1, 98 ER 499 (King’s Bench 1772)

*Note: The King’s Bench was England’s highest court at the time this case appeared.


FACTS: The petitioner, James Somerset, was a slave purchased by the respondent, Charles Stewart, in Boston Massachusetts. Stewart returned to England with Somerset in 1769, and in 1771 Somerset escaped captivity, but was promptly found and detained. He was forcibly turned over the Captain John Knowles of the HMS Ann and Mary, to be sent to Jamaica and resold into slavery. An application for a writ of habeas corpus was submitted on his behalf, and duly granted. Captain Knowles was compelled to present the petitioner before the court to ascertain the legality of his detention. Advocates for the petitioner argued that while Somerset’s purchase was technically legal within the American Colonies, the common law and statutory law of England did not support the enslavement of another. Furthermore, England’s common law of contracts does not support the notion that one may agree to a contract binding one’s self into perpetual slavery or servitude. Advocates for the respondent argued that while there is no evidence of slavery being allowed by English common or statutory law, there is also no evidence against that it is illegal, nor is the argument made by the petitioner’s advocates that there exists any legal debarment. Furthermore, as the petitioner was legally purchased, and there were no previously existing laws stating otherwise, the petitioner was the legal property of the respondent, and the respondent must not be stripped of the same.

ISSUES: Does the English common law provide support for the respondent’s right to detain a slave?

HOLDING: No. Ruling is provided in favor of petitioner.

RULE: The English common law provides no legal support for the detention of slaves, or for the practice of slavery in general. Such support must be inculcated through positive (statutory) law.

REASONING: While the English common law provides legal support to contracts involving the sale of slaves, it does not provide support for the forcible treatment of a slave in his person; a distinction to which Lord Mansfield attaches great importance. The practice of forcible treatments of slaves, and thus slavery in general, is found to be such an “odious” practice that Lord Mansfield declares that no moral or political support for it may derive from the common law, and that only positive law, which outlasts its purposes and principles, can be “suffered to support it.”


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