United States History, Law and Politics

The Somersett Decision
aka Sommersett or Somerset Case

by William P. Meyers

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The most central judicial decision for American politics, history and law took place in Great Britain on the eve of the American Revolution. Few citizens of the United States have heard of the case. It is not covered by law schools. It is not to be found in the history curriculum of American high schools, or even in colleges. It is not even mentioned in leftist tomes such as A People's History of the United States.

I came across the case by accident, while browsing an old law book in a used book store in New York City. Its significance struck me at once. I have mentioned it repeatedly over the decades, hoping to bring it to light. But even the publishing of an entire book on the subject by a distinguished professor of law in 2005 has failed to raise the veil, so far.

Imagine my surprise when I found the case mentioned in The Outline of History by H. G. Wells. This was once a widely read book in England, the United States of America, and indeed around the world. It is a wonderful, if now forgotten, book. Allow me to quote Mr. Wells (from page 852 of my Third Revised Edition):

"Throughout the middle part of the eighteenth century there was an active agitation against negro slavery in Great Britain a well as in the States. It was estimated that in 1770 there were fifteen thousand slaves in Britain, mostly brought over by their owners from the West Indies and Virginia. In 1771 the issue came to a conclusive test in Britain before Lord Mansfield. A negro named James Somersett had been brought to England from Virginia by his owner. He ran away, was captured, and violently taken on a ship to be returned to Virginia. From the ship he was extracted by a writ of habeas corpus. Lord Mansfield declared that slavery was a condition unknown to English law, an "odious" condition, and Somersett walked out of the court a free man."

Before going on I should note that spelling was irregular in the 1700's, and while Mr. Wells and others give the name as Somersett, in the book Slave Nation the spelling Somerset is used, and it was published as the Sommersett case, ex parte Somersett, in a law journal. Also the ruling was given in 1772, though the case probably started in 1771.

There is a bit of an underground current of knowledge of the Somerset case in "radical" literature in the U.S., notably among Abolitionists. If you want to know more about details of the case and how it caused an elite group of slaveholders and their lawyers to initiate the American Revolution, I suggest you read the Slave Nation. Here I will outline the implications of the violent rejection of the court's decision by Jefferson, Washington and crew. In later articles I hope to enlarge upon these themes.

In America it was decided that men (male and female) could be property. This was part of a larger agenda, the agenda of greed, of wanting more. Property was more important than people. A man was only as important as the property he possessed. This theory of law was enshrined in the common laws of the U.S., in state constitutions, and then in the U.S. Constitution. In effect the men who held the pens did not write the laws; they were a mere instrument of the properties that co-possessed them. Men talk about the Rule of Law, but in the United States the Law is a front for Property.

We see this again in the Dred Scott Decision. Then the Republican Party reversed Dred Scott in the aftermath of the Civil War. Then we were subjected to the weird and cruel law given in Santa Clara that property (corporations) has rights that some people do not have. Though since the Thirteenth Amendment people have not been slaves or property, only a few decades later, in Plessy versus Ferguson, it was affirmed that race could be a basis for discrimination under the rule of law.

The status of people, and of classes of people (women, "negros", children), has fluctuated throughout the last century. What has stayed supreme has been the prioritization of property. In our legal system humanity is seldom favored when weighed against property concerns.

We need to educate American citizens about the Somerset case, starting in our public schools. We need to see the American Revolution on a factual basis, rather than wrapped in false glory. We need to see our military, commercial, cultural and legal history in a clear light. Then we can begin to understand and change our current reality so that people are not subservient to property.

We need a rule of justice. Then the Rule of Law might be worth something.

More data:

Somerset v. Stewart pretty complete site with links
Sommersett case, photo of summary published in a British law journal, 1775
Somersett's Case at Wikipedia

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