The most famous case in all of English Common Law concerning the institution of slavery was adjudicated in 1771. Although this is more than forty years before the publication of Mansfield Park, the decision remained very much a part of the on-going discussion of the slave question and would have been known to Austen. The facts of the case are these: Charles Stuart, an Englishman [not the King!] bought James Somersett as a slave in Virginia in 1769, and brought him as a personal servant to England. In 1771, Stuart decided to send Somersett back to Virginia to be sold. Somersett escaped, and through the intervention of three English citizens, brought before an English court an appeal against his transportation back to Virginia. Through his intermediaries, he claimed that as he was on English soil, he was a free man, and ought not to be returned to the condition of slavery, either in England or elsewhere. The judge, in a landmark decision, freed Somersett. The heart of his decision is contained in these words:
"The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law which preserves its force long after reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say that this case is allowed or approved by the law of England, and therefore the black must be discharged."
THE JUDGE WHO HANDED DOWN THIS DECISION WAS: