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Imperial Politics and English Law: The Many Contexts of Somerset

  • Ruth Paley


One might have thought that after nearly 250 years there would be nothing left to discuss about what Lord Mansfield did or did not intend to say when he delivered his ruling in Steuart v. Somerset. Yet, as Van Cleve's essay shows us, Mansfield's words continue to provide fertile ground for scholarly investigation. Sadly, this is almost certainly because Somerset continues to resonate in contemporary American society for reasons that are as much about perceptions of racism and black heritage as about the plight of Somerset himself.



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1. Godwyn, Morgan, Trade preferr'd before religion and Christ made to give place to mammon (London, 1685), 6.

2. Boston Post Boy, 27 July 1772 (reporting events of 15 May).

3. Gening, , ed., Statutes at large, vol. 2, p. 260(Act III).

4. Journal of the House of Lords, xii, 16 Feb 1674.

5. House of Lords Record Office, Ctee bks, 23 Feb. 1674.

6. See, for example, the protests of those transported to Barbados and “sold for slaves” after the Salisbury rising of 1656. HLRO, HL/PO/JO/10/1/293. Similar language was used of the Monmouth rebels in 1685.

7. Hair, P. E. H., “Slavery and Liberty: The Case of the Scottish Colliers,” in Slavery and Abolition 21 (2000): 137–38, 140.

8. Rozbicki, Michael J., “To Save Them from Themselves: Proposals to Enslave the British Poor, 1698-1755,” Slavery and Abolition 22 (2001): 2950.

9. Dinwiddy, J. R., “The Early Nineteenth-Century Campaign against Flogging in the Army,” The English Historical Review 97 (1982): 310.

10. Blackstone, , Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4th ed. (London, 1771), 4:182.

11. Surrey History Centre, QS2/6/1781/Mid/2.

12. 4 Doug. 300 (1785); 3 Espinasse 3 (1799); Times, 30 Apr. 1799.

13. Times, 18 Nov. 1830.

14. OBSP 8 Dec 1742 case 27.

15. See, for example, Charles II's proclamation of 1674 (Wing 1629:109).

16. At least one American newspaper reported that if the court refused to free Somerset, the duke of Richmond was determined to take the matter to the House of Lords, . Boston Post Boy, 27 July 1772.

17. Particularly nasty racist sentiments are contained in Estwick, Samuel, Considerations of the negroe cause commonly so called addressed to the right honourable Lord Mansfield (London, 1772) and Candid reflections upon the judgement lately awarded by the court of King's Bench in Westminster Hall on what is commonly called the negroe cause by a planter (London, 1772). But even those sympathetic to abolition readily accepted the inferiority of those of Negro or part Negro ancestry.

18. Bromley Local Studies and Archives, P92/1/2, baptismal entry for Thomas West.

19. The National Archives, PROB 11/1230, stamped fos. 147-8.

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Imperial Politics and English Law: The Many Contexts of Somerset

  • Ruth Paley


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