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The Newsworthy Somerset Case

The Newsworthy Somerset Case: Repercussions in Virginia

by Emma L. Powers

Augusta County, Virginia, June 16, 1774
Run away… from [Gabriel Jones] a Negro man named BACCHUS… He formerly belonged to Doctor George Pitt, of Williamsburg, and I imagine is gone there under Pretence of my sending him upon Business… he is a cunning, artful, sensible Fellow, and very capable of forging a Tale to impose on the Unwary… [He] has been used to waiting from his Infancy… He will probably endeavour to pass for a Freeman… and attempt to get on Board some Vessel bound for Great Britain, from the Knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s Case. 1

What was “Somerset’s Case,” and why did this slave owner think it the runaway’s motive? How did Bacchus learn of this case if it were the reason for his running away? Addressing just these two questions takes us through a labyrinth of legal technicalities, English and American newspaper accounts (some accurate, some otherwise), as well as several manuscript collections. In following how the Somerset case was reported and discussed in the late eighteenth century and afterward, we see legends created, professional reputations made and lost, property safeguarded and later destroyed, dreams fulfilled or crushed, and people putting their lives and liberties on the line. In the nineteenth century, abolitionists misunderstood the Somerset case—perhaps they intentionally misrepresented it for propaganda purposes. Twentieth-century historians mythologized the decision as well.

More than two years before Bacchus left Augusta County, Lord Mansfield at the Court of King’s Bench in London handed down a unanimous decision in favor of James Somerset, a slave brought to England from the colonies. At this point I need to backtrack a bit and outline the basics of this matter, especially the cast of characters. First of all, who was Somerset? How did the suit of an enslaved African American come before the high court in London?

James Somerset had been born in Africa and brought to Virginia by a slaver in 1749 at which time Charles Steuart, a Scots merchant living in Norfolk, purchased him. Steuart afterward moved to Boston as a high official in the customs service. In 1769, Steuart went to England on business, taking Somerset with him as his personal servant. These facts at least are not disputed; they are clearly stated in affidavits filed with the court.2

Letters to and from Steuart indicate that Somerset served well and was trusted. He moved about freely, often alone, through London streets and the English countryside making deliveries and relaying messages. Steuart’s family and friends knew him well. For example, Steuart received a letter dated August 4, 1771, that said, “This will be delivered you by Somerset who sett of[f] this evening and I suppose will be with you tomorrow night. I have given him a Guinea which he says will be sufficient [money] to carry him down.” Less than a week later the same man wrote with some concern for the African, “You dont mention Somerset, but I take it for granted he got safe down.”3

No documents inform us of Somerset’s state of mind. We can only speculate about how he felt about his enslavement and being taken to a second foreign country. We do know that on October 1, 1771, he ran away, was recaptured and delivered to Captain John Knowles of the ship Ann and Mary on the Thames, and was held onboard in irons. The ship was bound for Jamaica where the captain was to sell Somerset on Steuart’s behalf.4

Interested parties, acting as Somerset’s godparents, intervened for their kidnapped godson. On the strength of the their affidavits, a writ of habeas corpus was granted on November 28, 1772. A working definition of habeas corpus seems in order at this point. It was and still is the legal document directed by a judge to a person who is detaining another, commanding him to bring the body of the person in his custody at a specified time to a specified place for a specified purpose. The writ’s sole function is to release an individual from unlawful imprisonment; through this use it has come to be regarded as the great writ of liberty. Habeas corpus tests only whether a prisoner has been accorded due process, not whether or not he is guilty.5

We have no way of knowing whether Somerset had actually converted to Christianity and if those people named as his godparents really knew him. It seems to have been a convention, a legal formula invented years before in other slave suits heard before English courts. Earlier attacks against slavery in England had proceeded on the assumption that no Christian could be held as a slave, thus the appearance of Somerset’s godparents here.6 This, like several other suits in England’s high court, had been designed and stage-managed, very much from behind the scene, by Granville Sharp, a philanthropist, scholar, founder of the English Society for the Abolition of Slavery, and, much later, recipient of an honorary LL.D. from the College of William and Mary in 1791.

Sharp’s own summary of the case reads as follows:

June 22d.-This day, James Somerset came to tell me that judgment was to-day given in his favour.

Somerset was the last Negro whom G. S. [Granville Sharp] brought before Lord Mansfield by writ of Habeas Corpus; when his Lordship declared, as the opinion of all the Judges present, that the power claimed by the master “never was in use here, nor acknowledged by the law; and, therefore, the man, James Somerset, must be discharged.” Thus ended G. Sharp’s long contest with Lord Mansfield, on the 22d of June, 1772.7

Surprisingly, Steuart’s private papers do not deal with Somerset’s flight and the impending legal crisis at any length.8 Early in 1772, there are a few brief references to the predicament. For example, in March, a correspondent supposed Steuart had kept away from the resort town of Bath, England, because of “that black Man of consequence Somerset Esqr.”9

By April 1772, word of Somerset’s case had reached Virginia—long before Bacchus fled Augusta County in 1774. The first to learn of it seems to have been James Parker, Steuart’s close friend and former business associate in Norfolk. On Steuart’s behalf, perhaps even at his request, Parker bent the ear of Governor Dunmore about Somerset. When Parker first broached the subject, during a morning walk in the Palace gardens, Lord Dunmore thought he might be able to call the case back to Virginia. When he found that beyond even his authority, the governor, who was a Scot like Steuart and Parker, offered instead to “write a private Letter to E[arl of] G[rafto]n” in George III’s ministry (but if he did pen such a missive, it does not survive). The case was much debated in Virginia—both in the press and face to face; for example, “the affair of yr. Darned Villain Somerseat came on the Carpet” during dinner at the Palace for members of the Council and other distinguished visitors.10

Quite a few of Steuart’s letters survive in various repositories, but for the critical period between October 1, 1771, when Somerset ran away, until the end of the case in late June 1772—only one letter in his hand has been located. On June 15, Steuart wrote a long paragraph about the progress of the suit, explaining that not he but “the West Indian Planters and Merchants” were paying the legal fees.11 Steuart seemed resigned to losing Somerset and concluded, ”Upon the whole, every body seems to think it will go in favour of the negroe."12

And indeed it did. Newsmongers immediately spread word that this decision meant the end of slavery in England and threatened the continuance of the institution in English colonies. An eloquent phrase from Somerset’s counsel was attributed instead to the judge, Lord Mansfield. Supposedly Mansfield’s verdict freed all slaves with the words “the air of England is too pure to be breathed by a slave.”13


“A Peep into the Court of King’s Bench, Westminster” (CWF 1973-26).
Printed for and sold by Carington Bowles, circa 1770, this black-and-white mezzotint
depicts the interior of the Court in the last years prior to the Revolution.

The fact that Lord Mansfield was expected to be sympathetic to this slave matter for personal reasons lent credence to the erroneous report that the words were his. He was the great uncle and guardian of a mixed race child, Elizabeth Lindsay (also known as Dido Eliza Belle), the daughter of Mansfield’s nephew, a Navy captain, and a black woman. Mansfield raised her, and she received generous bequests from both her father and her great uncle.14

There were—and are—several versions of the sentiment, all of which misrepresent the meaning of the verdict. Eventually, William Cowper perfected the language; he wrote, poetically, but inaccurately:

Slaves cannot breathe in England, if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free[.]
They touch our country, and their shackles fall.
15

According to eyewitnesses, the Lord Chief Justice had said only that slaves, while in England, could not be forced to leave. Legal historians have studied this case carefully, and the most respected specialist in these matters summarizes the court’s decision this way:

Read strictly and technically, the holding of Somerset was limited to two points: a master could not seize a slave in England and detain him preparatory to sending him out of the realm to be sold; and habeas corpus was available to the slave to forestall such seizure, deportation, and sale.17

Somerset’s access to habeas corpus was very important in and of itself. This meant that a vital right had been extended to a black man, said to be a slave, in opposition to his supposed owner. That habeas corpus was available to a black to test the legitimacy of an alleged owner’s claim to him or her certainly represented a threat to slavery in England.18

Newspapers in London, other English towns, and in the American colonies had been following Somerset’s case very closely for months. When the final verdict came down on that Monday, June 22, 1772, the mythologizing began at once, although some members of the press gave terse but accurate accounts. The Middlesex Journal, for example, reported that Lord Mansfield had decreed, “That every slave brought into this country ought to be free, and no master had a right to sell them here.” The words were actually uttered by one of the counselors for Somerset’s defense, and similar phrases echo through several centuries of English law and back into ancient literature.19

Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette gave a brief but accurate report taken verbatim from the June 1772 Universal Magazine, “Yesterday the Court of King’s Bench gave judgment in the Case of Somerset the Negro, finding that Mr. Stuart, his Master, had no Power to compel him on Board a Ship, or to send him back to the Plantations, but that the Owner might bring an Action of Trover 20 against any One who shall take the Black into his Service.” Soon the case took on a life of its own.

By 1770, some fourteen to fifteen thousand slaves lived in England, as well as an unknown number of free blacks. Most had been brought to the Mother Country from the West Indies or the mainland colonies as personal servants. 21 Black Londoners interpreted the decision in the Somerset case in their own way and began to celebrate. The “great number” of blacks who had gathered to hear the final decision at King’s Bench “went away greatly pleased” with their victory.22

One source reported that after hearing the pronouncement near two Hundred Blacks, with their Ladies, had an Entertainment at a publick House in Westminster, to celebrate the Triumph which their Brother Somerset had obtained over Mr. Stuart [sic], his Master. Lord Mansfield’s Health was echoed round the Room, and the Evening was concluded with a Ball.23

Some slaves in England who heard about the court’s decision left their masters, believing the verdict ended slavery there in one fell swoop. In July, scarcely three weeks after the ruling at King’s Bench, one of Charles Steuart’s business associates in England wrote

I am disappointed by Mr. Dublin, who has run away. He told the Servants that he had recd. a letter from his Unkle Sommerset acquainting him that Lord Mansfield had given them their freedoms & he was determind to leave me… which He did without ever speaking to me… [He] carried of[f] all his own Cloths which I dont know whether he had any right so to do. I believe I shall not give my Self any trouble to look after the ungreatful [sic] Villain, But his leaving me just at this time, rather proves inconvenient. If you can advise me how to act you will Oblidge.24

There are several intriguing comments in this brief letter. First and foremost, in less than a month, the Somerset decision had come to mean freedom in the minds of many, including Anglo-Africans, and the news was getting around. That Dublin was actually Somerset’s nephew is unlikely, though as a slave of business associates Steuart and John Riddell, they certainly knew or knew of one another. If only Somerset’s letter to Dublin had survived! Their understanding of their present plight, recent changes in their status, and their future plans would all be of great interest.

Also, it would be fascinating to know more about the relationship between Dublin and his coworkers, who were probably mostly or entirely white British domestics. No sources describing those connections are available to us. Indeed, concerning Somerset’s life after Lord Mansfield discharged him from court, we know only that he went in person to relay the news to Granville Sharp, his benefactor and legal mastermind.

The only additional piece of information we have about Somerset’s life is that he refused to return to Steuart’s service. He probably remained in England, but this is mere supposition. One historian reluctantly concluded that James Somerset had “lapsed into obscurity” after his famous court appearance. 25

Dublin’s situation in 1772 resembles that of the Virginia runaway slave Bacchus. What happened to them after their escapes? Nothing more is known about Dublin. And we unfortunately know little more about Bacchus. The advertisement tells us he had once lived in Williamsburg and had belonged to Dr. George Pitt, who had immigrated to Virginia in 1742 from Worcester, England. Besides practicing medicine, Pitt was also keeper of the Magazine, where the colony’s arms and ammunition were stored. Sometime before the Revolution Pitt returned to England for political reasons—that is, he was a Loyalist. We know even this much about him because of his son’s Loyalist claim. 26


“High Life Below Stairs” (CWT 1954-710). This somewhat stylized view of an English kitchen
was also printed for Carington Bowies and is dated July 17, 1770. It shows a black liveried servant
socializing with other household staff in a space that may also function as a servants’ hall.

We can never know exactly what Bacchus learned about the pros and cons of England (and the purity of its air) from Dr. Pitt, but he was in a position to learn quite a lot. Like James Somerset and probably Dublin as well, Bacchus was a body servant and waiting man. Personal servants, by their very job descriptions, were well placed to know their masters’ political views, to overhear conversations and plans, and to acquire valuable inside information of all sorts. This is an important trait Bacchus and Somerset had in common.

At the beginning of this article I omitted parts of the runaway ad for clarity and brevity. Let me put them back in now for the complete story. “He [Bacchus] will probably endeavour to pass for a Freeman by the Name of John Christian, and attempt to get on Board some Vessel bound for Great Britain.” This strongly implies that Bacchus had run away previously and had already prepared a persona to slip into.

Much of the advertisement details the clothing Bacchus carried away from Augusta County. The items of very fancy apparel included, among other items, “a fine Cloth Pompadour Waistcoat… five or six white Shirts, two of them pretty fine, neat Shoes, Silver Buckles, [and] a fine Hat cut and cocked in the Macaroni Figure.” We can only speculate whether these were to be the wardrobe of the free man John Christian or if they were carried away for the resale value.

What happened to Bacchus alias John Christian? We don’t know any more about his last days than about James Somerset’s. Perhaps Bacchus made it to England in 1774. If not and if he dodged reward-seeking captors in Virginia, maybe he took advantage of the next year’s opportunity—Dunmore’s Proclamation. In 1775, the same Virginia governor who had offered to assist Charles Steuart in holding onto Somerset invited slaves to join the royal cause if they were capable of bearing arms and owned by American rebels. In response to the Proclamation, about 800 slaves made it to British ships.27

After the war and as a result of the Somerset case, slaves living near Boston, Massachusetts, resorted to courts more frequently to seek their freedom. They also requested “back wages” for all their years of labor. 28 American abolitionists in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thoroughly exploited the misunderstood Somerset case, citing it as the death knell for slavery in England. In the process, they nearly deified Lord Mansfield as well. It was decades, however, before England outlawed the slave trade (1807) and twenty-six years beyond that (1833) until the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.29


William Murray Mansfield, first earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice (CWF 61993-123).
Based on the Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of Lord Mansfield (1705-93), the printed portrait is the work of engraver F Bartolozzi and is dated August 24, 1786.

From the beginning, myths grew up around this legal case. As usual, the myths proved more vivid and longer lasting than the truth of the limited application of the verdict. News of supposed emancipation spread from wishful-thinking Anglo-Africans and English abolitionists to ill-informed printing offices in English provincial towns, as well as up and down America’s eastern seaboard. At least one poet and several generations of New England abolitionists found inspiration in the misquoted words of the verdict in the Somerset case. Word traveled from the owner in London to his confidant in Norfolk, Virginia. Before long, the royal governor was involved, and Somerset’s predicament became dinner table conversation at the Palace in Williamsburg. Domestic servants had access to the news nearly as soon as their masters. Enslaved people both in England and the Virginia backcountry heard and believed what they heard; they believed so strongly that they acted on the information and risked their lives by daring to escape. Somerset misconstrued was a giant fiction. Its repercussions in Virginia and elsewhere were greater than its legal reality.

Endnotes

1Virginia Gazette, ed. Purdie and Dixon, 30 June 1774. I am grateful to Michael Nicholls for this reference and, therefore, for inspiring my search into the records on both James Somerset and Bacchus, alias John Christian. An earlier advertisement in the same editors’ paper also mentions that Virginia slaves thought England meant freedom: “I have some Reason to believe they will endeavour to get out of the Colony, particularly to Britain, where they imagine they will be free (a Notion now too prevalent among the Negroes, greatly to the Vexation and Prejudice of their Masters).” Ibid., 30 September 1773.

2F.O. Shyllon, Black Slaves in Britain (London: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations, 1974), 77-78; William M. Wiecek, The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 1769-1848 (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1977), 28-29; and Charles Steuart Papers, Personal and Official Correspondence, owned by the National Library of Scotland (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation microfilm M-68.3). I am grateful to David Thomas Konig for recommending Wiecek’s monograph. Steuart’s name is variously spelled in primary sources. I have adopted the only spelling he, his family, friends, and close business associates used.

3Michael Murray to Steuart, 4 and 10 August 1771, Steuart Papers, ff. 16, 24-25.

4Shyllon, Black Slaves, 77-78; Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, 28-29.

5Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., 2001, via www.bartleby.com.

6Shyllon, Black Slaves, 124.

7Prince Hoare, Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq., 2nd ed. (London, 1828), 137. Zoffany painted Sharp and his family aboard their pleasure barge on the Thames in the 1770s. Much later, in 1791, the College of William and Mary awarded Sharp an honorary LL.D. degree. Dictionary of National Biography, 51 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1897) and personal communication with College Archivist Margaret Cooke, July 22, 2002.

8As I read the surviving letters, I found myself wondering if Steuart’s letters pertaining to the Somerset case had been separated from the rest of his papers for study or possible publication at some point—either by Steuart’s lawyers in preparing to go to court or by some later family members or scholars.

9John Riddell to Steuart, March 1772, Steuart Papers, £ 133.

10Parker to Steuart, 25 May 1772, Steuart Papers, ff. 159-160.

11Those who were deeply invested in West Indian land and the many slaves who worked the sugar cane crop and sugar mills were very rich and thoroughly committed to the system of slavery in the islands. They used their immense resources to sway opinion in England. An act tolerating slavery in England was proposed repeatedly, but not passed by Parliament. The Virginia House of Burgesses petitioned the Crown to end the importation of slaves into the colony in the spring of 1772. Journal of the House of Burgesses, April 1, 1772, 12:283-284.

12Steuart to James Murray, 15 June 1772, James Murray Robbins Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 43 (1910): 451.

13Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, 21. Even the venerable Dictionary of National Biography (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1897), 51: 402, in its entry about Granville Sharp mistook the decision in the Somerset case, a mistake left uncorrected in subsequent volumes of additions and corrections.

14Elizabeth Lindasay, aka Dido Eliza Bell, appears with Lady Elizabeth Finch Hatton in a painting by Johann Zoffany still in the possession of the earls of Mansfield.

15William Cowper, “The Task,” Book II, line 40, cited in Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, 34. Cowper’s poem, written in 1783, was published in 1785, well after the Somerset case.

16Shyllon, Black Slaves, ix. Somerset v. Stewart [sic], Lofft 1, 98 Eng. Rep. 499 (K. B. 1772), reprinted in 20 Howell’s State Trials 2, cited in Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, 30, n. 26.

17Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, 20.

18Ibid., 33.

19Middlesex Journal, 23 June 1772, cited in Shyllon, Black Slaves, ix. Shyllon also cites Felix Farley’s Bristol journal for 27 June 1772 as another accurate report. Pennsylvania Gazette, No. 2277, 12 August 1772; Virginia Gazette, ed. Purdie and Dixon, 27 August 1772, which is a direct quote from the Universal Magazine for June 1772, 33. The above issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette quotes Alleyne as saying, “that the laws of England would not endure it [slavery], nor suffer the free air of this realm to be contaminated with the breath of a slave.” Shyllon also cites accurate reporting by The London Evening Post, 24 June 1772; The London Chronicle, The Daily Advertiser, The Gazetteer, The General Evening Post, The Morning Chronicle, all of 23 June 1772, as well as The Gentleman’s Magazine 42 (1772): 293-294, and The Annual Register 15 (1772): 110.

20Trover is a common-law action to recover damages for property illegally withheld or wrongfully converted to use by another (American Heritage Dictionary via bartleby.com).

21Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, 25.

22Universal Magazine, June 1772, 330, and Virginia Gazette, ed. Purdie and Dixon, 27 August 1772.

23Virginia Gazette, ed. Purdie and Dixon, 3 September 1772. If the Williamsburg printers copied this notice from an English publication, the original has not yet been identified.

24John Riddell to Steuart, 10 July 1772, Steuart Papers, f. 192.

25Gretchen Gerzina, Black London: Life before Emancipation (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 131.

26Loyalist Claim of Richard Floyd Pitt, son of Dr. George Pitt, PRO/AO 13/32.

27Michael L. Nicholas, “Straddling Hell’s Boundaries: Profiles of Free People of Color in Early Virginia,” Utah State University Faculty Honor Lecture in the Humanities, Fall 1991, 11-12, copy in John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

28Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 119, cited in Wiecek, Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism, 56.

29Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1974), 34-35.