Authors: Alfred W. Blumrosen
Although the issue grew to divide the country, slavery did not have to be squarely faced while the colonies were part of a mother country that tolerated it, allowing North and South each to go its own way. However, for the slavecentered South, even the possibility of this change was enough to light the spark for the coming revolution. The spark came with the
decision in England that freed a slave brought to London by a colonist and raised a question as to slavery’s legitimacy in the Empire. Although this decision did not overturn slavery in the colonies, its logic was not lost on southerners. The Blumrosens take us from
to the Revolution. They show that England had accommodated tax grievances in the past and might have compromised that issue further. However, for the South, compromise on slavery was unthinkable. Independence was the only solution.
, the Blumrosens go down seldom explored paths that lead to the pro-slavery compromise that was sewn into the national fabric well before the Revolution. The Revolutionary patriots in the North did not speak openly about maintaining slavery but made it clear to the South that slavery would not be disturbed. There would have been no revolution to create one nation if John Adams, the Massachusetts antislavery stalwart and other northerners had not accepted southern prerogatives on slavery. There would have been no union if both the Northwest Ordinance and the Constitution had not guaranteed the continuation of slavery in the southern territories and the entitlement of owners even to their slaves that escaped to the North. The price of freedom from England was bondage for African slaves in America. America would be a slave nation.
North and South made their way to the same barricades with the same national slogans and for many of the same reasons. The committees of correspondence spread revolutionary ardor to increasingly receptive colonies, and British intransigence to greater autonomy and equal rights between England and the colonists congealed.
Beneath the unity of revolution lurked a compromise that could not endure and would lead to civil war in the next century. The Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance memorialized the bargain that had been struck to allow the Revolution to go forward and create a slave nation. The Blumrosens write compellingly from the evidence. The riches are in their research and documentation. They leave us without illusions about how we became one nation.
will surprise many readers about the central role of slavery in our nation’s Revolutionary history, but this book should deepen their appreciation about the distance we have had to travel and for the nation we are becoming today.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congresswoman for the District of Columbia, Professor, Georgetown University Law School.
On June 22, 1772, nearly a century before the slaves were freed in America, a British judge, with a single decision, brought about the conditions that would end slavery in England. His decision would have monumental consequences in the American colonies, leading up to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and beyond. Because of that ruling, history would be forever changed. This book is about that decision and the role of slavery in the founding of the United States.
The story of that British court decision begins with the kidnapping of a nine-year-old boy who was growing up in a West African village. He joined the river of slaves that sailed the infamous Middle Passage to America, arriving in Virginia in March, 1749.
Along the way he was given his slave name—Somerset. He was healthy and quickly picked up English. These qualities caught the eye of a Scottish born, up-and-coming, twenty-four-year-old merchant and slave trader named Charles Stewart. Stewart’s office and storehouse were in Norfolk, Virginia, a town where many of the Scottish merchants drawn to the tobacco industry had settled.
Stewart purchased Somerset on August 1, 1749, and trained him as his personal servant. Somerset was given better clothing than Stewart’s other slaves and taken to meetings with Stewart’s friends and business associates. Somerset was a personable young man with both white and black friends. Correspondence to Stewart included compliments about “able Somerset Stewart” from Nathaniel Coffin, an important Quaker from Boston, along with the terms of the highest friendship from “Sapho and Tambo,” presumably black slaves or workers for Coffin.
The lives of Somerset and Stewart would not now be remembered except for an act of courage and tact by Stewart in 1762 during the French and Indian war. A ship carrying Spanish soldiers, who had surrendered to the British and were being repatriated, floundered off the coast near Norfolk. The ship was under repair when a mob of Virginians attacked the soldiers, killing two and wounding several. Stewart intervened, quieted the mob, and saved the remaining Spaniards. Britain was grateful for his intervention, and rewarded him with a position of authority over customs collectors from Quebec to Virginia. Somerset traveled with Stewart as he enforced the customs laws and met Stewart’s friends and associates.
Stewart rose in the customs service, becoming paymaster general of the American Board of Customs. In October, 1769, Stewart sailed to England with Somerset to help raise his sister Cecilia’s children after the death of her husband. They settled in London. Somerset, with new household duties, familiarized himself with the city and found a black community of thousands of former slaves and free persons, mainly from the British West Indian colonies.
The large number of former slaves proved unsettling to Sir John Fielding, the man who had modernized the London police force. In 1762, he published a book of extracts from the statutes that governed merchants and artisans of London, hoping that doing so would improve their understanding of the laws. In this, he anticipated modern administrative regulation of business.
In his book, he tried to discourage colonials from bringing their slaves to England. He explained that when slaves were brought to London, “They put themselves on a footing with other servants, become intoxicated with liberty, grow refractory, and…begin to expect wages.”
Fielding warned colonials that there were “a great number of black men and women who…make it their business to corrupt and dissatisfy the mind of every fresh black servant that comes to England; …makes it not only difficult but dangerous to the proprietor of their slaves to recover the possession of them, when once they are spirited away.”
In his final argument against bringing slaves to England Fielding declared that the slaves would be useless —and dangerous—when they returned to the colonies:
The sweets of liberty and the conversation with free men and Christians, enlarge their minds and enable them…to form such comparisons of the different situations, as only serve…to embitter their state of slavery, to make them restless, prompt to conceive, and alert to execute the blackest conspiracies against their governors and masters.
Some London blacks were free. Some, like Somerset, were slaves to colonials living in London. Some had been freed by their masters. Some worked; some were beggars known as the “St. Giles Blackbirds.” Some were popular artists and singers. Others were seamen or servants.
Some had been runaways whose owners had given up looking for them because, according to Fielding, “the mob [was] on their side.” The “mob” was “the working people of London, the preindustrial craftsmen and laborers who poured into the streets of the capital in their thousands to demonstrate for ‘Wilkes and Liberty.’”
John Wilkes was a colorful character in the East End of London in the 1760s and 1770s. He was elected to parliament, but having incurred George III’s displeasure was denied his seat repeatedly and was often arrested, only to be freed by the mob shouting “Wilkes and Liberty.”
Somerset met many blacks on the streets while running errands for his master, in the stores, and along the docks where he looked longingly at ships that might take him to freedom in a friendly climate. He also became acquainted with some white persons, possibly those with whom Stewart was friendly or had business connections. His pleasant personality, noted in connection with his activities in the colonies, generated friendships in England as well. His conversations with “free men and Christians,” as Fielding suggested, may have led to his decision to leave Stewart.
In August of 1771, he was baptized in the Church of St. Andrew, Holborn. He probably took his first name, James, at that time. His godparents were Thomas Walkin, Elizabeth Cade, and John Morrow. Some thought that baptism— becoming a Christian—would either ensure freedom for a slave, which was not true, or would be a positive element in any litigation concerning his status. Some five or six cases seeking freedom for black slaves were brought before English courts after 1769. This litigation had been inspired by Granville Sharp.
Sharp, a thin, short man with intense features, had illustrious religious ancestors; he was grandson of the archbishop of York, and son of an archdeacon. He disdained the ministry and applied his fine mind to a variety of intellectual matters while working as a government clerk in the ordinance department. He was an intellectual dilettante until he stumbled onto the problem of slavery. He had befriended Jonathan Strong, a young black slave whose master had beaten him nearly to death. Sharp assisted in Strong’s recovery and helped him get a job after he recovered. Two years later, Strong’s “owner” saw him and had him detained to be shipped to Jamaica to be sold.
Sharp secured Strong’s release. He was appalled by Strong’s owner’s actions and could not believe they were permitted under the laws of England.
Although he was not a lawyer, Sharp thoroughly researched the confusing precedents on the subject. In 1769 he wrote a powerful tract in support of his views,
and helped secure the freedom of five or six runaway slaves who had been recaptured by their masters.
Somerset left Stewart’s home on October 1, 1771, and did not return. Stewart was not only dismayed at Somerset’s action, but felt Somerset had betrayed him and “insulted his person.” He posted notices and may have hired slave catchers.
Somerset was caught, and on November 26 was delivered to Captain Knowles aboard the
Ann and Mary
, a ship preparing to sail to Jamaica. Knowles was to sell him there. Knowles’s sailors dragged Somerset into the hold and put chains on him; chains that Somerset must have thought would never come off.
But they did come off. His godparents acted quickly. On December 3, a week after he had been captured, they petitioned the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus, with affidavits stating that Somerset was being held against his will aboard ship by Captain Knowles. Lord Mansfield, the chief justice of the court, issued a writ requiring Knowles to explain to the court the reason for Somerset’s detention.
King’s Bench was the oldest and highest common law court in England; it was so named because in earlier years, the king himself sat in judgment in that court. In 1772, it consisted of a chief justice and four associate justices. One was William Blackstone, the author of the
Commentaries on the Law of England
, which were well known to colonial lawyers. In 1765, he had written his interpretation of the confused English precedents concerning slavery:
And this spirit of liberty is so deeply implanted in our constitution, and rooted even in our very soil, that a slave or a Negro, the moment he lands in England, falls under the protection of the laws and so far becomes a freeman.
Lord Mansfield was a former attorney general, a cabinet minister, and a firm upholder of the powers of Parliament over the king and the colonies.
No radical abolitionist, Mansfield was a powerful jurist and parliamentarian who dominated the Court of King’s Bench. His major fame as a jurist was in rationalizing British law to facilitate commerce. He was careful to include in his opinion on Somerset’s case that “Contract for the sale of a slave is good here; the sale is a matter to which the law properly and readily attaches.”
Mansfield was speaking only to the commerce in slaves relating to the colonies, not to the authority of a master in England.
On December 9, Captain Knowles appeared in King’s Bench with Somerset and a written explanation of why he had been holding Somerset. His reason was simple: Stewart had delivered his slave Somerset to Captain Knowles so that Knowles could take the slave to be sold in Jamaica. Somerset’s lawyer, William Davy, asked for more time to prepare. Mansfield released Somerset, with sureties, until the hearing. Somerset remained in London, and appeared at the final hearing in his case, which took place on June 22, 1772.
After Somerset was released by Mansfield, he went to meet Granville Sharp. Sharp had secured freedom for other slaves, following the same approach that Somerset had used—obtaining affidavits of white witnesses alleging that the runaway slave was held against his will. These affidavits were submitted to Lord Mansfield, who required the person imprisoning the slave to explain his authority.
In Sharp’s previous cases involving slaves brought to England, Lord Mansfield had persuaded the slave owner to free the slave, thus enabling the chief justice to avoid what for him was a complex legal and social problem of liberty versus property. In 1771, Mansfield had told a lawyer for another escaped slave:
Perhaps it is much better that [the legality of slavery] should never be discussed or settled. 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.