Though the Heavens May Fall: A Study of the Reality of Somerset v. Stewart in English and American Discourses




Pehlman, Lydia

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At Westminster on June 22nd, 1772, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield of the King’s Bench delivered a succinct oral opinion concluding the landmark trial of Somerset v. Stewart. James Somerset, the runaway slave of Charles Stewart, had sought a writ of habeas corpus to prevent Stewart from seizing and detaining him in England, then putting him on a ship traveling to Jamacia where he would be sold. The enigmatic nature of Mansfield’s opinion quickly thrust Somerset into the limelight and secured its place in legal history as a fascinating milestone in Anglo-American legal history for the impacts it had upon the legitimacy of slavery. This thesis seeks to analyze the context, outcome, and influences of Somerset v. Stewart. I look specifically at the philosophies and outlooks on slavery in England and America by analyzing historical scholarship and the variety of court cases that cited Somerset. The goal of this thesis is to achieve a greater understanding of how Somerset influenced the rising American abolitionist movement and proslavery response and the development of freedom claims as the courts became a key instrument of liberation.



Somerset v. Stewart., Legal History., Antebellum America., Abolition., Slavery.