British Views of Liberty

William Blackstone, from Commentaries on the Laws of England

The jurist Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780) was appointed the first Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford in 1758. After his Oxford lectures were published (1765), they were long regarded as the standard authority on the development of English law, and were cited in order to demonstrate the wisdom and justice of English institutions, which were deeply grounded in history and reason. Hence Blackstone's opinions on liberty and slavery carried great weight in the judicial interpretation of legal rights.

 

The idea and practice of this political or civil liberty flourish in their highest vigour in these kingdoms, where it falls little short of perfection, and can only be lost or destroyed by the folly or demerits of it's owner: the legislature, and of course the laws of England, being peculiarly adapted to the preservation of this inestimable blessing even in the meanest subject. Very different from the modern constitutions of other states, on the continent of Europe, and from the genius of the imperial law; which in general are calculated to vest an arbitrary and despotic power of controlling the actions of the subject in the prince, or in a few grandees. 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 with regard to all natural rights becomes eo instanti a freeman.

 

In the third edition (1768–69), the end of the final sentence was revised (after "laws") as follows: "and so far becomes a freeman; though the master's right to his service may probably still continue." Blackstone did not want the passage used to support the doctrine that a master would automatically lose his right to the service of any slave brought to England.

In 1771 James Somerset, a slave who had been brought from Virginia to England, escaped from his master. A month later he was recaptured and put on board a ship bound for Jamaica. But he and his case were brought to the Court of King's Bench, and after a lengthy trial, in 1772 Lord Mansfield decided that, whether or not there could be slaves in England, a master had no right to compel a slave to go into a foreign country. Somerset was freed. Though the legal status of the case was far from clear, in practice it put an end to slavery in England. For a later Scottish case, see Samuel Johnson's Brief to Free a Slave (NAEL 8, 1.2849).


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