Bonhams to Offer Rare Account of a Slave’s Bid for Freedom

A scarce first edition book recounting a significant moment in the anti-slavery movement is being offered as part of the Law Books: Property of LA Law Library sale, on March 5th in Bonhams Knightsbridge salerooms. The sale of this collection of important European legal books could achieve over £600,000.

“An Argument in the Case of James Sommersett, a Negro Lately Determined by the Court of King's Bench. Wherein it is Attempted to Demonstrate the Present Unlawfulness of Domestic Slavery in England”, published in 1772, is estimated at £400-£600. The case covered in the book centred on James Sommersett, an African sold into slavery in Virginia, who on his arrival in England with his "owner" moved to have himself declared "free."

Sommersett had been purchased by one Charles Stewart in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, then a North American British colony. After being brought to England with his owner in 1769, he managed to escape two years later, but was recaptured after a matter of months. Immediately after, however, an application for a hearing at the Court of the King’s Bench was made by three individuals claiming to be Sommersett’s godparents from his Christian baptism. Stewart was summoned and ordered to bring Sommersett before the court, to establish whether or not his state of captivity was in fact legal.

Commencing in February 1772, the case caused a sensation in the press, and donations from the public to fund the legal fees on both sides flooded in. Over the next few months, five advocates spoke on Sommersett’s behalf; they included the famed lawyer James Philpott Curran, whose impassioned arguments during the case were later much quoted by American abolitionists.

The simple line of reasoning used by Sommersett’s counsel was that though he was purchased in a colony, the laws of which permitted slavery, he was now in England, where neither the common law nor any Parliamentarian statutes acknowledged chattel slavery’s existence; therefore, Sommersett was being unlawfully held. On Stewart’s side, the lawyers maintained that property rights were paramount, and freeing the plaintiff would set a dangerous precedent.

Once both parties had offered their best arguments, the presiding Judge, Lord Mansfield, mulled over the decision for a month. It was a fact that slavery had never been expressly sanctioned by statute, and the ruling, when it finally came, was that it was also uncorroborated in common law.

In the now famous judgment of Somerset v. Stewart, Lord Mansfield stated “ so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law...Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England,” thereby ruling that there was no basis for the institution of slavery in the existing laws of England and Wales.

Sommersett gained his freedom, and the case was seen as a great step forward in the fight against slavery.

The Los Angeles County Law Library, which is the largest public law library in the United States after the Law Library of Congress, assembled much of its collection of historic European law books in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.  The sale, the first major auction of antiquarian law books in the 21st Century, will enable it to concentrate resources on its core purposes of providing public access to practical legal knowledge for the people of Southern California and beyond and to free up space to conserve rare books and documents on American law.

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