A stunning legal drama unfolded before the King’s Bench in London in early 1772. James Somerset, a slave brought to England from the American colonies, petitioned the court for a writ of habeas corpus, which would free him from confinement on his enslaver’s ship. Lord Mansfield, the judge reviewing the case, granted the writ in a stinging rebuke of Somerset’s captors: “The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from …
This article appears as “Interpreted as It Ought to Be” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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