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     Though the Heavens May Fall: the Landmark Trial That Led to the End of
    Human Slavery
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Good morning and welcome to focus 580. This is our telephone talk program my name is David Inge. Glad to have you with us this morning. In just a moment here as soon as we get set up with our guests we'll be talking about a landmark legal case one that took place in England back in the 1770s that a lot of people regard as being something of the beginning of the end of slavery in England and the United States. It is a case that presents of course very compelling issues. Some rather interesting personalities and we'll talk about it here this morning with a guest Steven Wise who's authored a book on the subject. His book is titled though the heavens may fall and the subtitle is The landmark trial that led to the end of human slavery. It is out now. Recently published by Koppel press. Let me tell you a little bit about our guest Steven Wise. He's taught at a number of law schools Harvard Vermont and John Marshall. He's
also president of the Center for the expansion of fundamental rights which he founded in 1995. He is the author of another book that we discussed in fact here on this program a book titled rattling the cage which takes a look at law and animals. And he's joining us this morning by telephone. We talk questions certainly are welcome. The number here in Champaign Urbana 3 3 3 9 4 5 5. We do also have a toll free line and that one's good. Anywhere that you can hear us around Illinois in Indiana or in fact if you would happen to be listening on the internet as long as you're in the United States on any of all of those kinds of listeners are welcome to use the toll free line. That's eight hundred to 2 2 9 4 5 5 so again 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 4 people here in Champaign Urbana and toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5. Dr. Weiss Hello. Hello how are you this morning. I'm fine thanks and yourself. I'm doing very well. Good.
Thanks very much for talking with us. Well let's talk a little bit I guess to start about the man who is really at the center of this case a man named James Somerset who was born in Africa and when he was a boy was captured he was sold into slavery. He was purchased by a man named Charles Stewart Living in Virginia and did live in Virginia for a number of years. How is it that the two of them ended up in London in the 1770s where this trial took place. Well try trial Stewart was a Scotsman who lived in Virginia and he ended up. Saving some Spanish passengers on a ship once interfering with a mob who is trying to kill them. And for that he was promoted to a to a high position in the British customs. Then he was ultimately promoted to the highest customs official in England and I'm sorry in the Americas and
ultimately he decided to take a rest and go to London in 1771. I'm sorry in 1770 and when he did that he naturally brought along his most trusted man servant and slave who was James Somerset so the two of them ended up in 1770 living together in London. So then here we are in London and so then what happens is that James Somerset Somerset runs away. He leaves. Yes he escaped and indeed there were. There were about 15000 blacks in England at the time and most of them were concentrated in in London and there was a substantial number of runaways and there we had a very flourishing community. And he apparently joined that. Community and I wanted to live his own life and I think he was. He was on his own for a somewhat less than 60 days before the slave catchers that his Master Charles Stewart put on him managed to catch up with him and drag him off to a ship in the in the Thames
harbor to be brought to be sold again on the slave market in Jamaica. So they caught him. They took him to the ship rather than than taking him back Stewart puts him on the ship to be sold. Yes Stuart was very angry apparently. They had had had a quite close relationship. And Stuart had trusted Somerset for more than 20 years and and indeed Somerset had spent a lot of time on his own Stuart would would would tell him to travel from city to city both within London and within the United States and Somerset would do it without escaping. So when he did. Steward was furious and apparently Somerset and they had said some things. The steward as he was leaving that absolutely enraged steward and so steward did not want him back and wanted him sold and also as a gauge of the depth of betrayal he felt. He knew that the slaves who were sold on the slave markets in Jamaica were not going to live for very long. So Stuart Somerset had had escaped. He had
been living in this community of runaway slaves so obviously the word must have gotten out that he in fact had been caught by the slave catchers had been put on this boat was was bound for Jamaica if nothing if no one intervened. And in fact he was saved How did that happen. Well he had done what many blacks did which was convert to Christianity get baptized. And it was partly because there was a myth circulating through the black community and through some of the whites as well that Christians could not be slaves. And it was something that was held even though no court had ever freed a slave on the grounds that he or she had become a Christian. Become baptized but Somerset did get baptized in 1770 in London and he came up with a number of Godfathers and traditionally hard at least and a few times God fathers or god parents looked out for the slaves who they were who they were God fathering. And if they tried to escape would actually help them
and some people think that the people who became Somerset's godfathers in 1770 may have even helped them escape and hidden him because shortly after he was captured placed on the ship but before the ship could sail out of the Thames somebody went to the court of King's Bench before Lord Mansfield who was the greatest judge probably event or any other time an English speaking country and obtained the writ of habeas corpus which means produce the body. And the captain of the Annan Marriott which is the ship that Somerset was on was then ordered to stop the ship bring Somerset before Lord Mansfield which he did. The then here we we as you tell the story were introduced to one of the maybe than one of the most interesting characters in this whole story. And there are a number of them and this was a man named Granville Sharp as once Somerset Godfrey. He went to see Granville Sharp and the reason that he went to see him is because he was someone who was well known as an abolitionist and had in fact been
involved bit by this time in a couple of other celebrated cases that involved similar sorts of situations in which he was trying to make the argument that slavery was wrong he believed that it was morally wrong it was legally wrong it was against the Bible and he was looking for cases to use to make that argument so tell us who was Granville Sharp Granville Sharp was one of those extraordinary people in history who pop up every now and then. He was like the fifth or sixth son. Of a person who ran out of money before he could send Granville to school the Granville really was a self educated man he was intensely religious he believed he was a he he believed in the literal truth of the Bible. And but he hadn't really thought anything at all about slavery. And one day in the in the mid 17th 60s he was in his brother who is in his brother's surgery and his brother was a doctor when
he ran into a young black man who was nearly dead and it turned out that that that young black man was a slave and had been beaten over the head so repeat repeatedly and so severely by his master who was using a revolver that he was he was nearly dead. And so Granville and his brother William who was the surgeon got. This slave to the hospital where it where it took him more than three months to recover. When he got out of the hospital they then got him a job at which he fruitfully worked for the next two years. Then by chance his old master I'm sure To his astonishment sees that instead of his former slave having died in the street as he expected he was now a hale and healthy fellow who was who was hard hard at work. So what he did is then sell him to someone else and then arrange to have that slave captured and thrown into a prison called the poultry Compter. The slave then managed to get word out to Sharpe who had actually
actually forgotten what he had done for the man because Granville Sharp was a man who did who thought that his time on Earth should be spent doing good deeds for others and so he did a lot of them. So he had actually forgotten that he had helped the slaves. He then went to the jail and was turned away. And that made him suspicious and he ultimately was able to meet the slave realized who he was and was horrified that he had been recaptured. He then went to the mayor of London and demanded a hearing as to whether this man could be kept in prison or brought to the West Indies and sold. And at this first real real challenge to the legality of slavery the mayor of London also had judicial powers said that the slaves had done. Nothing wrong and that he there was no reason to keep him at that point. Sharp and his and the other brother were sued by the slaves. New Master and Sharpton went to the best lawyers in
London and said I can't be sued because it's not right to have slavery and all of the lawyers he saw including the most eminent in England told him that he was going to lose that slavery was was accepted and legal and Sharp was the kind of person who said well if that's true then I'm going to study the law myself and I'm going to see to it that slavery if it is legal is not going to be legal because it's wrong and the law cannot be wrong like this. And that's what he did for the next year or two. He studied the law. He then wrote up his own legal tract about why slavery should be illegal and published. Did and ultimately the lawsuit against him was was dropped. But this had awakened sharp to the outrages of of black chattel slavery in England and Africa. You say he would for a lot of reasons he was an appealing character and certainly for his very strong feelings about slavery it seems though to the many other ways that he was read he was a rather unappealing character he definitely seems as an individual have his pluses and minuses.
Well he was a religious bigot for one thing he he was a strong supporter of the of the Church of England but was but was. As were many in England that in England at the time was I was rabidly anti Catholic in fact did not believe the Catholics or even Christians. And he was against people being able to remarry after divorce he was against males and female males playing females on the London stage. He had his own reasons then and when he believed something he was absolutely immovable and luckily for slavery in the course of history one of the things that he believed in was that slavery was wrong and he was absolutely immovable on that. One of the interesting things is that he was simply and really a lonely ordinance clerk who worked in the Tower of London many many hours a day. And he decided that the lawyers of England the judges of England everybody was wrong and that slavery was wrong and
that if they weren't going to to make slavery illegal he was going to make them do it and he did. Maybe I should introduce again at this point our guest for anybody who has tuned in we're talking with Steven Wise he's taught at Harvard Vermont John Marshall Law Schools He's president of the Center for the expansion of fundamental rights and has written widely on the roots of Western law. He's the author of a new book that explores this chapter in legal history and it is titled though the heavens may fall the landmark trial that led to the end of human slavery as published by Dick Koppel and questions again are welcome. 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 2 2 2 9 4 5 5. The case that first got Granville Sharp involved in this issue that you just gave the thumbnail sketch of and it concerned this man named Jonathan Strong. Long after that there was another case that Sharp was involved in this involved a married couple a couple who had married
as slaves. The owners of the man set him free. This couple lived together and then a couple of years later the owners of the woman had her kidnapped and shipped actually she made she didn't. No one succeeded in rescuing her she was actually shipped back to slavery and the West Indies. What's the story of that case. That's the John Hyland case and and indeed that did happen to John eyeless and his wife Mary and for two years John did not know what to do. His wife had been shipped back to the West Indies and then he learned of Granville Sharp and he went to sharp store and he he he. Explained his problem and Sharpe got him counsel and began to think well maybe this this will be the test case that I want. However it turns out that John Holl and his lawyers were really not very good. They were not very aggressive and they're not very learned and they were so timid that they
didn't even in their court papers seek to have Mary Heil is brought back to London. Instead they just asked for monetary damages for have for John Hollis for losing his wife which was just one of many times that Granville Sharp became apoplectic about how the legal system was dealing with the whole whole issue of slavery. The judge saw past that this was not Lord Mansfield but was another very competent judge and ultimately on his own asked the slave the former slave. John Heil as well. Did he want money or did he want his wife back. And he said he wanted his wife back. So the judge ordered that his wife be brought back within six months or by the first available ship back to London. Shop was still not satisfied because he believed that under a statute that John Heilemann should have been able to have his wife back but should also have been able to got quite substantial damages and called for a minimum of 500 pounds which was
quite a large sum of money for the for the end of the eighteenth century. And he thought that John Hollis had not been dealt with properly even though he was in debt to get his wife back. The next case that you write about which with sort of the ultimate The one that we come to just before the case that really is the landmark case that you talk about in the book. Again it's a similar kind of story. A man a black man named Thomas Lewis again who was he had been a slave again. He escaped. He was kidnapped. He was put on a ship bound for Jamaica to be sold there was rescued at the last minute literally the last literally the last minute and then again Granville Sharp got involved and in this particular case what he and the people that he was working with actually managed to charge Louis is former owner with kidnapping and this case actually went to trial and this is one
that it did in deed involve this judge Lord Mansfield he was the presiding judge. Maybe I should ask you to talk a little bit. About who this man was who Lord Mansfield Lord Mansfield was an extraordinary man. He was a prominent political leader first in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords he was attorney general of England at one time the solicitor general of of England he served in the cabinet of the King. And when when his time came he was appointed lord justice or Chief Justice of the court of King's Bench. He is acknowledged as being perhaps the the greatest judge of the English speaking countries have ever produced. It was very very well known for his sense of fairness his desire to do individual justice on one hand on the other hand he was all he almost created modern commercial
law and insurance law. And he was very supportive of British commercial interests. And he also. Oh and his grand niece. And the way that happened is that his nephew his gran or his nephew had been a naval officer and had captured a black slave a female black slave and had impregnated her. And when the child was born he didn't know what to do with her. And he basically gave her to Lord Mansfield as his uncle and Lord Mansfield treated her as a member of his family and indeed raised her along with a nother white grand niece and he became very fond of her. And however he technically owned her. So this was the man that that Granville Sharp thought was really the focal point of the judicial system in England and he was the person
who he who Sharp was and sharp lawyers was going to have to convince to abolish slavery. There was another problem and that was in the 17th 20s almost 50 years before. The then attorney general and Solicitor General of England had been invited by the planters of the West Indies to Lincoln's Inn for a dinner and drinks and what they wanted to do what the planters wanted was the attorney general and the solicitor general to make a statement that slavery was legal because they didn't want any kind of ambiguity about this because slavery was an integral part of the economies of the of the plantations in the West Indies and obligingly. That's what they did. The the attorney general and the solicitor general issued a joint opinion saying that indeed slavery was perfectly legal. Now it turned out that the the attorney general became a mentor to Lord Mansfield
and Lord Mansel admired him enormously. And so Granville Sharp knew that Lord Mansfield in order to order the slaves freed was going to have to somehow find it within him to abandon what his mentor had always believed in and really reverse it and gradually. Had such confidence in Lord Mansfield as a matter of justice that he believed that indeed he would be able to do that in this first case involving Thomas Lewis. Sharpe was bitterly disappointed and of course became very angry at Lord Mansfield because what what occurred was they was sharp brought criminal charges against the people who had kidnapped Thomas Lewis. And there was a trial and at that trial Lord Mansfield managed to avoid the question of whether slavery was legal in in England. And he framed it so that the jury would have to rule
that Thomas who was he really never been this man's slave. So that because he'd never been the man slave manse you would not have to rule whether slavery was legal. And then he did something else that that really really enraged Sharpe is that after the jury found the man guilty of the former owner guilty Mansfield refused to sentence him and every time Sharp's lawyer would come come into court and say we'd like to have the man's sentence we'd like to have the man sentenced what Nancy would say just go away. And he finally looked at the lawyers and said I don't think you understand what I'm saying here. Go away I never want to see you again and that's what happened. No no no don't let me interrupt yours you're doing a great job telling story go ahead. When a quite extraordinary thing happened because it was so clear from the way that Lord Mansfield had conducted the Thomas Lewis trial telling the jury that you know phrasing the question so the jury in such a way that it would that he would not have to determine
the legality of slavery. Clearly not wanting to set to sentence Stapleton who was Thomas who was a former former former master of jail and really a man handling Sharp's lawyers. It became clear that Manson did not want to deal with this. So on a certain morning in November 1771 Mansfield finally told Sharp's lawyers to go away and never come back. And of course later on things changed with the with the case of James Stewart which which we can talk about. I guess one of the things that I'm wondering about and you sort of touched on it was to what extent Lord Mansfield felt constrained or pressured by the argue. And that the economy of the British Empire rested on slavery or at least part of it rested on slavery. And if he Lord Mansfield should come along and say slavery is wrong. It can't it cannot stand. That would be a severe blow to the empires economy it was was this was this a case that
had a lot of people both people in business and people in law and also with the person in the street following it. Yes in it it was one of the first cases that had an enormous amount of media media attention. There were letters to the editor which is not not really a usual thing at the time for newspapers there were letters pro Mansfield anti-man pro Somerset anti Somerset newspapers in London covered the trial very very carefully more than they usually covered things and indeed. Trial also lasted or the hearing lasted far longer than did the average one. The usual trial in London at the time would last somewhere around 10 minutes could be 10 minutes 30 minutes 45 minutes but the U.S. did last an hour and Mansfield in this case had the trial lasts a full six months on and off so he would he would say
sorry we're finished for today after people would argue for hour after hour. Come back in six weeks they would come back in six weeks and they do it again and they had a half dozen hearings in this case. So the trial was drought would be the hearings went on from from December of 1771 through June 23rd of 772 which was quite a long time and in that time the media interest in became very large and people began talking about slavery and they really didn't stop for years until it was until slavery was was abolished. Well we are at our midpoint of this part of the show. We do have a color that will bring right into the conversation and again I'd like to introduce our guest. We're talking with Steven Wise he's the author of a book that tells this story. The title of his book is though the heavens may fall. The landmark trial that led to the end of human slavery about the case of James Somerset took place in London in 1772.
And the book is published by the capo press if you're interested in reading. And of course questions are welcome here. 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 is our number here in Champaign Urbana we do also have a toll free line. That's 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5. We have a caller in Charleston Let's talk with them on our line for Hello. Yes. Taking everything that's been said into consideration my view of slavery is this that when slavery human slavery met the steam engine something had to give and a new paradigm was established. And chattel slavery had to build these you know investment in a slave. However they were treated in trade around sold and bought. Nevertheless somebody had to feed him and take care of them and give them some sort of housing and use them in the most beneficial manner to the slave holder. Well when steam
power came into existence in my opinion the need for chattel slavery then was replaced by wage slavery which still exists to this day. And until something happens to you. Blunt often wage slavery which will take a huge upheaval in human society. The it was inevitable that chattel slavery be done away because everything changed with the advent of steam power. Would you agree with that. Or is there what you have in common. Well settle for a very hung on for quite some time. England managed to get to abolish slavery first for the Somerset case and then through acts of parliament in needle at the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century but as you know as of 1860 and in the United States it was a huge a huge industry and there
were there were millions of chattel slaves in the southern part of the United States. And if there had not been a civil war there they probably would have continued on for some large long time and slavery was not abolished and some of the South American countries until near the end of the 19th century. So it certainly was still in existence and part of the world legally for almost all for more than 100 years after the Somerset case. Indeed there is slavery now in some parts of the world. But it is illegal and it is and it's really not slavery it's really people being kept against their will illegally in violation of. Domestic law and international law. Yes you know and there is no comment about wage slavery I mean the you know the labor is wanton sold just as it always has been. The chattel slave he reiterated were a liability
and slavery has no viable no viable except when there is enough unemployment and such that we saw the huge upheavals in the 1930s over working conditions and all that's evolved. You know it's now in a slight I think there's only 12 percent unionized workers in the US which you know as their power is diminished but at its peak in all of the steps we had to to come up with some answers or there was some revolution at hand. So wage slavery. Well that is what it is you know I mean the only way you can make a living anywhere is to sell your labor and if you don't have a buyer then who cares. So thank you for serving I enjoyed the show. Well the life of the other questions are certainly welcome 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5. And once again we're talking with legal scholar Steven Wise. He's written a lot about the
roots of western law and this book that we're talking about this morning again it's about a series of cases that took place in England in the 1770s that really set the stage for the end of slavery and England and then later in America though the heavens may fall that's the title of the book again 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5 where you you may want to know where the where the title though the heavens may fall came from or that to believe is a quote from Lord Mansfield. Yes it is in in the Somerset case. And actually he used it he used this quote in a case about eight years before. And he was he was now to use it again the second. It was clear that Mansfield did not want to be placed in the position of having to decide whether slavery was legal. I believe there was something that odd something very odd that happened which is on that day in November in 1771 in the morning when he told Granville
Sharp lawyers basically to go jump in a lake and he did not wish to see them again. That was the very day that James Somerset case for habeas corpus was brought before him and he didn't have to issue that writ of habeas corpus and he must have known that Granville Sharp was behind this too or he was probably probably lurking somewhere. And and that if he issued that writ of habeas corpus that the same problem that he had just gotten rid of in the Thomas Lewis case was going to crop up again and eventually he was going to have to confront the issue of slavery. But he issued the writ of habeas corpus anyway. However when the case started he still did not want if he could to decide the great issue of slavery he wanted to help each of the individual slaves who wanted to bring them out of slavery. But he didn't want to issue the sweeping ruling and while Granville Sharp and the other lawyers kept trying to box him into it and forced me him in into doing it. So he tried to get the. Slave owners
and the slaves Somerset and and Charles Stuart to settle. However each each man James Somerset and Charles Stuart each of them were mere corks that were bopping on on an ocean of either abolitionists for or or anti abolitionists for ever and the West Indies interests basically took over the defense from Charles Stuart and the abolitionists took over the prosecution concerning James Somerset and everybody wanted this to be a test case and nobody wanted to settle. And Lord Mansfield tried to get people to settle he advised the slave owner in the West Indies interest to go to parliament to try to get a statute passed that would make slavery legal. No one wanted to do it. So finally he said well if you're going to make me decide the case. Then let justice be done though the heavens may fall. It's really a fascinating story and it does seem to turn on this this
change of heart of Lord Mansfield who here we have these two cases we have Lewis v. Stapleton and we have Somerset v. Stewart that seemed in their circumstances to be quite similar. And in the Lewis case Mansfield as you explained it he even though the jury found the the owner Stapleton guilty Lord Mansfield wouldn't would not issue a judgment he would not sentence Amy finally as you say got to the point where he said to Granville Sharp and his lawyers just get out of here to go away don't bother me I'm not going to do it so just stop asking and then of course again as you say the very same day the next case comes. And it was very obvious that Mansfield did not want to be put into that corner of making the ruling and yet he did. I mean could could he not have escaped doing that the second time could he not have done what he did the first. Time around at that point. Well he probably could have he was a very resourceful person and it's very hard 200 years on to figure out exactly why he ruled as he did
he certainly went back and forth and back and forth and clearly did not think that people should be slaves but on the other hand he clearly understood that human slavery was very important to the English economy and he was a very strong backer of British commercial interests. So he went he was in his mind obviously being pulled in several directions. He could have avoided it. And indeed he could have avoided at the very beginning by not issuing the writ of habeas corpus in the first place. And but but he did. Then there were a series of very powerful arguments made in his courtroom. At the time lawyers really did not appear in court very often it's you know the 18th century trial was dramatically different than the 21st century trial. And usually neither plaintiffs nor defendants had lawyers and trials were very short usually around 10 minutes or 30 minutes or 40 minutes including the time it took for the jury to
deliberate. But this case was seen as so important by the participants that James Somerset ended up having five lawyers all of whom. And donated their time which was extraordinary to have five lawyers in the case. And Charles Stewart had two lawyers and and two Granville sharps you know horror and fury. The primary lawyer on the master's trial Stewart's side was the same lawyer that tried that Granville Sharp is hired to represent the slave Thomas Lewis. And just a few months before that man John Dunning had stood up in the Thomas Lewis case in front of Lord Mansfield and argued that that there could not be slavery in England it simply could not be allowed. Then within the year he switches sides and takes the side of the of James Somerset's master in the Somerset versus Stuart case and argues that slavery is just fine and is legal in England and it's certainly
made sharp not think any any very well of lawyers and lawyers. Well that's another one of those details that I think is a fascinating tale and when I was reading the story I wasn't even sure that I had that right I said. No I said to myself Now wait a minute. It would do is this really true that it was the same lawyer who argued for Louis against slavery in that case in the second case completely completely. Switch sides. And in that case he was in that case he was representing steward the slave owner the man. And so how i guess that's what you wonder how is it that this man who in the previous case had stood there making the argument for the for the slavery the former slave against slavery could then make the argument represent the complete opposite side could turn around completely and argue for something that he previously just as a matter of I'm not sure how long this was weeks maybe had argued again was it even a year. Yeah. So it seems stunning that that that Mr. Dunning who was the
barrister could have done that. Well not only was it did did he do that but he but he made both arguments in the same room before the same judge. And he made opposite arguments. And of course there are many people today who who don't like that when lawyers do that sort of thing. And John Dunning has been both supported and severely criticized over that over the centuries for for having done that. Yes that is that the slaves of the West Indies interests simply offered may Dunning an offer he couldn't refuse and they offered him a substantial amount of money and he took it and he was the dean of both the common law and the equity bars in England at the time in other words he was the most prominent barrister in England and so it wasn't something that he was going to be able to hide here you have the most prominent barrister in England stand up in the in the Lewis case and say slavery is wrong then less than a year later you have the problem of the barest ending and stand up and say slavery is right is right.
Clearly was not going to be to go unnoticed and it didn't. He was quite quite severely chastised for that. And so we have a record of what Granville Sharp thought of. Doubt it. In one of the records I found in the New York Historical Society Granville Sharp I had written in a transcript of the Thomas Lewis case he'd found a place for Dunning had stood up in front of Lord Mansfield opened up Granville Sharp's own book against slavery and was and was saying slavery is illegal. And Sharpton made a little footnote and in a fury he was saying how could a lawyer do this. He was he is an awful awful person and lawyer lawyer is an awful awful profession and he was so angry that he wrote this kind of scrawling on the very bottom of it all the way up the right side page. His fear he was just was just spewing out what's not with someone else we have listening this is a color in the champagne line 1 below.
If it hasn't been covered I'd like to see what the reaction was in this country among common people slave owners and otherwise and the press and I'll take my answer off the air please. Well it was a case that was reported by almost all of the colonial newspapers and the Somerset case had a had a great impact. Up until the time of the Civil War both the northern courts and the Southern courts accepted it as as law as part of a common law that became part of the United States when the colonies became a country. And what about However the the actual holding of the case which is somewhat disputed actually but but it it it appears it appears probable that what Lord Mansfield said was that slavery is so odious that the common law which is which is supposed to be based upon principles of justice will not
support it. The common law. That is the kind of law that's made by judges in the process of deciding cases. So Mansell said In England if we're going to have slavery it has it's going to have to be through a parliamentary statute and if there is no parliamentary statute then slavery is so odious that the common law will not support it. So what happened is that both North and South accepted that and in the south the legislatures actually passed statutes that made slavery illegal while in the north they didn't. So everyone agreed that if in the absence of statutes there would be no slavery but if there were statutes and then there were in the South slavery would still be legal. Then you can't you. You began to have fights which which which raged for years and years and years up until the Civil War about the question of things like well if you have a slave in the South who then is brought to the north. Is he then free because he's now because and because he is now in a place in which
slavery is prohibited. And courts began to to try to deal with the consequences and the meanings of the of the Somerset decision in the United States. So one guess has to be a little cautious about how you talk about the significance of the case and I think that it it it is probably correct to say that this decision sets this sets the stage for the end of. Avery in in England and and in the United States. Yeah but it doesn't it didn't it did not end slavery. It seems that it people people argue about whether it ended slavery and in England. My my take on it is that practically and for all intents and purposes it did end slavery and in England that is to say that there weren't still a few people who tried to keep slaves but it appeared that that it did it certainly provided a big boost for parliament to act. In the
coming decades and then ultimately cause it to end slavery not only in England but in the English colonies and then ultimately to to begin to patrol the coast of Africa to try to stop the slave slave trade and entirely let us so talk with someone else we have someone calling on a cell phone line for now. Yes I'd like to recall that there was a one of the I think he was the head of Congress during or he was after the Articles of Confederation came out but the anyway he had a son that where he was from South Carolina and one of the legislators that asked his son who is studying to become a barrister to go over and listen to this case I believe it's the same case. But to me this seemed like this was really a
significant event in the sense that during the Revolutionary War and I believe this happened before the war. I'm going by exactly the mixed up but this is what I'm trying to say is that based on the fact that anyone was really by the by the Revolutionary War they were against slavery. The idea that England was going to try to take over more of the the governing powers in the United States which was I think this could have been. And I do know that maybe the United States was quite afraid of having anyone with their view about slavery getting more involved in American politics a lot of your comments on this. Well actually at the just before the the outbreak of the American Revolution in the in the mid 1770s when when war
was clearly coming the governor of Virginia famously said that any slave who joins the British army will be free. And kind of turning the rhetoric of the calmness on its head. The columnists were talking about liberty and freedom and yet they were they were keeping slaves. And people like Samuel Johnson in London said things like. Isn't it odd that the people who yell the loudest for freedom are our slave holders and slaves indeed did think about and did take the Virginia governor's race. That statement very seriously because they knew of the Somerset case and they knew that what that that the British were freeing their slaves in London and that if they could make their way to London they certainly would be free. And if the British gov was going to to proclaim that they would be free well maybe he knew what he was talking about and consequently there were numbers of slaves who deserted their white masters on the American side and went to the British side in
exchange for promises of freedom. And they believe that because of the Somerset case. Well my point is it isn't perhaps slavery might have been over the fact that the England's position on slavery might have been more of a significant cause from the Revolutionary War than we'd like to admit. It's it's it's so complicated there. I don't know the answer to that question I don't know the answer that question certainly I think of it I immediately thought of was the fact that it is in one of his earlier drafts of the Declaration of Independence one of the things that Thomas Jefferson was railing about was how the British had imposed the system of slavery on the United States and then the Continental Congress deleted those phrases from the Declaration of Independence. I think once one problem is that it was really hard to to talk about the colonies as a unit because the the way that the people of Massachusetts used
slavery and the people of South Carolina if you had slavery were very different. Well my point is this. I think this is a just another issue that has never been brought up very much to the fact that the South which is there was a lot of loyalty is in the south. But maybe they felt differently knowing that England if they were going to be in in forcing their rule in the United States perhaps could either tax for slaves or just do away with slaves and this would frighten the Southerners tremendously. Well you in that you may have a very good point. Thank you. Stood to Sion there was a provision that set a deadline for ending the importation of slaves and that was when the Constitution was created said Well 20 years from now where there will be no more importation of slaves that was 18.
That would be 18 0 8 and then 18 0 7 the British formally abolished the slave trade with their colonies. Was there some relationship between this. This at least this is that step that is in the United States in the early United States to say that at a certain point we will no longer import slaves. Is that somehow related to the Somerset case or generally the abolition movement in. In Britain probably probably it is. It is somewhat linked the the issue of how all the colonies and United States viewed slavery is very very very complex I have many many books in my library on it and one thing I did mention is that within the within the United States people within colonies and then from colony to colony had very different views about slavery and it was
it was something that clearly had to come to compromise and indeed the compromise or one of the comp one of the many compromises you know is famously set forth in the Constitution where we're for certain certain purposes Black plays account of the three fifths of a person. I mean obviously that was that was a compromise. Well it was it was and I think if I'm remembering this right it was one of those important things that would offer to the Southern states to get them to ratify it. Yes. Yes indeed it it was. If I may say yes that is. Some people do die. I was on your show. When I talked about my book rattling the cage. Yes you're on the line because I'm primarily known as an animal rights lawyer an animal rights law professor and legal scholar and there is a direct analogy between the work I do on behalf of the legal rights
of nonhuman animals and the work I've done on the Somerset case. Well that I guess we're we're almost at the point we have to finish but but that does invite some kind of way to wrap us up to talk about what is your feeling is is the the larger the lasting significance of this case that we've been talking about. Oh yes and the the WHOLE LIFE whole or when one of the important issues that I have dealt with in the last 20 25 years and the issue of animal rights law is what what is the legal process or what is the process by which a a being who the law views as a legal thing without any rights essentially invisible to the civil law. What's the process by which that being condemned through the judicial process become a legal person who has at least some fundamental rights and that was really the text of rattling the cage and drawing the line. And one of the reasons that I wrote the heavens may fall was to go back to a time in which black slaves were seen as travel as things the way
non-human animals are seen today. And to look at the whole unbelievably complex fascinating messy process by which black slaves in London through the judicial process moved from becoming a legal thing without any rights to being a legal person with rights. Well I think at that point we will finish with the suggestion that for people who are interested in reading this history they can go and look at the book that we have been talking about and again the title as though the heavens may fall in the landmark trial that led to the end of human slavery the publisher on the book is de capo and the author is our guest Stephen Wise he's taught at the Harvard Vermont and John Marshall Law schools. He's also president of the Center for the expansion of fundamental rights which he founded in 1905 has written a good deal articles and books on the roots of Western law a book that as he mentioned we discussed here on this program that looks at the law on animal rights. The book is entitled rattling the cage and then
Though the Heavens May Fall: the Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery
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With Steven M. Wise, J. D. (President of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights, Inc.)
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community; Government; History; How-to; Race/Ethnicity; race-ethnicity; History; United States History; african-american; Slavery
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Chicago: “Focus; Though the Heavens May Fall: the Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery ,” 2005-01-14, WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 10, 2019,
MLA: “Focus; Though the Heavens May Fall: the Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery .” 2005-01-14. WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 10, 2019. <>.
APA: Focus; Though the Heavens May Fall: the Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery . Boston, MA: WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from