The Somerset Case and the Anti-Slavery Controversy, 1772
In 1772 the case of James Somerset went before England's highest common law court, the King's Bench. When the chief justice rendered his decision following five days of testimony, Somerset was free--literally-- from the laws that had enslaved him for years.
James Somerset, an American slave, was sold to a customs official named Charles Stewart. Stewart bought Somerset in Virginia and took him to Massachusetts, where Stewart worked for the British government. In 1769 Stewart sailed to England on business and took his slave with him. Somerset used the trip as an opportunity to escape, but he was recaptured. Stewart decided the best thing to do with a rebellious slave was to sell him back into slavery, and he made plans to ship Somerset to Jamaica.
At this point, British abolitionists learned of Somerset's plight, and an outspoken advocate of manumission, or freedom for slaves, Granville Sharp, contacted Somerset. With the abolitionist's help, the slave petitioned the court for his freedom. The chief justice, in ruling that Somerset must be set free, said, "[N]o Master ever was allowed here to take a Slave by Force to be sold . . . therefore the Man must be discharged."1 The decision to free Somerset was handed down not because slavery was illegal, but because England had no laws that pertained to his particular situation.2
Even though the decision did not end slavery in Britain and its colonies, many in England and America believed that the Somerset verdict