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The Somerset v Stewart case brief is a famous judgment of the Court of King’s Bench in 1772 on labor law and human rights.

Somerset v Stewart Case Brief

Still more pertinent is the precedent established in Sommersett’s Case (1772), an episode in British jurisprudence that made its way into the American legal consciousness. That famous case involved a slave from jamaica, James Sommersett, who escaped when his master brought him along on a business trip to England. After he was recaptured, Sommersett was placed in chains aboard a ship that was to take him to Jamaica to be sold. While still aboard the ship, however, Sommersett was brought by habeas corpus before the Court of King’s Bench.


In his ruling, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield declared that slavery was an institution so “odious” and so contrary to natural law that it could exist only by statute. Unless a law established the slave relation, slavery had to be assumed not to exist. In the absence of such a statute in England, the slave relation had to be considered of no effect in that country, and therefore Sommersett should be released.

It was on this principle that a Missouri circuit court granted Dred Scott and his family their freedom in 1850. That freedom was granted on the basis of this well-established line of legal argument that had grown within Southern jurisprudence and which owed its inspiration to Sommersett’s Case. As constitutional scholar John Remington Graham explains, the circuit court’s decision could hardly have been surprising given the statements of the Missouri Supreme Court, and those of other Southern states, for nearly three decades. But the Missouri Supreme Court, hearing the case on appeal, reversed the decision of the circuit court and declared Scott and his family still enslaved. According to that court, the relevant law was that prevailing in Missouri, not in Illinois or the Wisconsin Territory.

The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, wherein a 7–2 decision the Court ruled against Scott. Chief Justice Roger Taney argued that due to Scott’s lack of American citizenship, he was not entitled to bring suit in the Supreme Court, and so the most recent court decision against him stood.

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