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Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery.

Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery by Steven M. Wise

What required four years of bloodshed that nearly destroyed the United States, England had accomplished by a civil lawsuit a century before. In 1769, an American slave, James Somerset, accompanied his owner, Charles Steuart, on a vacation to London, where he ran away. After slavecatchers found him, Steuart punished him by shipping him out to the slave markets of Jamaica. Before the ship set sail, however, a writ of habeas corpus issued, commencing the case of Somerset v. Steuart.

Lawyer and law professor Steven M. Wise centers his book, Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery around the case, which seemed to call for the simple determination that Steuart had lawfully purchased Somerset in Virginia, and thus had the clear right to sell him. But Somerset had obtained the assistance of Granville Sharp, an ordnance clerk who had been devoting his small resources and tenacious determination to a series of lawsuits designed to secure the abolition of slavery. Sharp studied lawbooks in his spare time and had discovered a long tradition of antipathy to involuntary servitude among English courts and lawyers. He condemned contemporary lawyers who tarnished this illustrious heritage by tolerating and defending slavery.

In three suits that preceded Somerset v. Steuart, Sharp and his attorneys succeeded in winning the freedom of a slave who had been beaten and abandoned, then seized and sold by his master when his health was restored; damages for a free black man whose wife was kidnapped and shipped to the West Indies; and a criminal conviction for false imprisonment of a slaveowner who attempted to sell his former slave. In spite of his successes, Sharp was continually frustrated by judges who stopped short of considering the legality of slavery itself. Until Somerset v. Steuart.

In fact, the Right Honorable William, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, the most powerful judge in England, urged Steuart to free Somerset or to voluntarily dismiss the case, which would foreclose the court's need to decide an issue that might result in freeing the 14,000 to 15,000 slaves in England. If the parties insisted on a decision, however, Lord Mansfield promised it would be founded neither on compassion for James Somerset nor fear of the consequences, but on the law; "fiat justitia, ruat coelum" ["let justice be done though the heavens may fall"].

Wise provides interesting background about the legal actors: the five lawyers Sharp retained, none of whom accepted a fee for the case; the lawyers who argued Steuart's case, fairly ineptly; and Lord Mansfield himself, who was both a strong proponent of equity and a believer in the need for certainty in property and commercial law. Indeed, "liberty and property were at war in slavery." Much of counsels' arguments are reproduced here, including the brilliant statements by one of Sharp's lawyers arguing for the first time as a barrister, later described by American abolitionist Charles Sumner as "one of the masterpieces of the bar." Somerset's lawyers argued that the ancient practice of villeinage (serfdom) had died out because the English despised it, and that permitting its return in the form of African slavery corrupted the people of England. Although the law of the place where a relation commenced usually prevailed, slavery was an unnatural relation, only permitted in certain areas by local law, but that English air had become "too pure for a slave to breathe in." Steuart's lawyers argued in opposition that slavery was hardly an oddity, but existed over three-quarters of the earth, and that it would be unjust under mercantile and legal principles to strip a man of his lawfully obtained property simply because he had transported it to English soil.

The case attracted enormous attention, from citizens lining up each morning to attend the proceedings in Westminster Hall and debating the issue in the newspapers, to slaveholders in the American and West Indian colonies awaiting a decision with trepidation. On June 22, 1771, after the twelve justices had deliberated an entire month, Lord Mansfield delivered a unanimous opinion to a packed courtroom. The court ruled that the right to own and sell another human being was so odious that mere custom could not justify it, but that it must instead be expressly authorized by Parliament. Because there was no such law, "the black must be discharged." Wise writes, "the completeness of Somerset's victory was stunning."

Colonial slaveholders tried for years afterward to get a law passed legalizing slavery in England, but could not. On the other hand, pro-slavery interests in the United States succeeded in enacting numerous laws legalizing slavery and ensuring that a slave who entered a free state remained the property of his or her master. Of course, English participation in the slave trade continued, as did slavery in the British West Indies and India.

This engaging book provides a valuable account of a case we should all know about.

The book (268 pages) sells for $25 from Da Capo Press.

Ellen B. Gwynn is staff attorney at the First District Court of Appeal, Tallahassee.
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Author:Gwynn, Ellen B.
Publication:Florida Bar Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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