June 22, 2019

SOMERSETT’S CASE: On this day in 1772, Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, held that chattel slavery was unsupported by the common law of England and Wales.

James Somersett had been brought to England in 1769 by customs officer Charles Stewart, who had purchased him in Boston. In 1771, Somersett escaped. Stewart recaptured and imprisoned him, intending to ship him off to the Caribbean to be sold. But anti-slavery advocates sued in court for his release.

Stewart warned of dire consequences if slavery were to be unrecognized. Mansfield responded, “Fiat justitia, ruat caelum.” (Let justice be done though the heavens fall.)

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