The Black Must Be Discharged - The Abolitionists' Debt to Lord Mansfield

Stephen Usherwood shows how Lord Mansfield employed his precise legal mind and his reasoned humanitarianism to expose the iniquities of slavery - and thus helped pave the way for its abolition.

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

With these words, delivered on June 22nd, 1772 in Westminster Hall, then the home of the Royal Courts of Justice, the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield, concluded his judgment on the case of a runaway black slave, James Somersett, who had been brought before him on a writ of habeas corpus. The writ had been obtained by Granville Sharp, a clerk in the Ordnance Office, who had engaged no less than five prominent barristers to plead. An equally strong team had appeared for the owner, Charles Steuart, Receiver-General of Customs in North America, a Virginian by birth. Mansfield, in an earlier case concerning a runaway called Lewis, had remarked:

I don't know what the consequences may be if the masters were to lose their property by accidentally bringing their slaves to England. I hope it never will be finally discussed; for I would have all masters think them free, and all negroes think they were not, because then they would both behave better.

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