The Newsworthy Somerset Case
Augusta County, June 18, 1774
"Run away . . . from the Subscriber, a Negro Man named BACCHUS, about 30 Years of Age, five Feet six or seven Inches high, strong and well made . . . He formerly belonged to Doctor George Pitt, of Williamsburg, and I imagine is gone there under Pretence of my sending him upon Business . . . he is a cunning, artful, sensible Fellow, and very capable of forging a Tale to impose on the Unwary . . . [he] has been used to waiting from his Infancy. . . . He will probably endeavour to pass for a Freeman . . . and attempt to get on Board some Vessel bound for Great Britain, from the Knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset's Case."
More than two years before Bacchus left Augusta County, Lord Mansfield at the Court of King's Bench in London handed down a unanimous decision in favor of James Somerset, a slave brought to England from the colonies . . .
James Somerset had been born in Africa, was brought to Virginia by a slaver in 1749 when Charles Steuart, a Scots merchant living in Norfolk, purchased him. Stuart afterwards moved to Boston as a high official in the custom service. In 1769 he went to England on business, taking Somerset with him as a personal servant. Letters to and from Steuart indicate that Somerset served well and was trusted. He moved about freely, often alone, through London streets and the English countryside making deliveries and relaying messages . . . on October 1, 1771, he ran away, was recaptured and delivered to Captain John Knowles of the ship Ann and Mary and was held on board in irons. The ship was bound for Jamaica where the captain was to sell Somerset on Steuart's behalf.
The Somerset case began . . . [when] a writ of habeas corpus was granted on November 28, 1772 . . . to release an individual from unlawful imprisonment . . . This like several other suits in England's high court, had been designed and stage-managed, very much behind the scenes, by Granville Sharp, a philanthropist, scholar, and founder of the English Society for the Abolition of Slavery . . .
The case was much debated in Virginia—both in the press and face to face; for example, "the affair of yr. Damed Villian Somerseat came on the Carpet" during dinner at the Palace for members of the Council and other distinguished visitors . . . Steuart seemed to be resigned to losing Somerset and concluded "upon the whole, every body seems to think it will go in favouor of the negroe . . ."
And indeed it did. Newsmongers immediately spread that that decision meant the end of slavery in England and threatened the continuance of the institution in the English colonies . . . According to eyewitnesses, the Lord Chief Justice had said only that black slaves, while in England, could not be forced to leave. Legal historians have studied this case carefully, and William Wiecek, the most respected specialist in these matters summarizes the Court's decision this way:
"Read strictly and technically, the holding of Somerset was limited to two points: a master could not seize a slave in England and detain him preparatory to sending him out of the realm to be sold, and habeas corpus was available to the slave to forestall such seizure, deportation, and sale."
We can never know exactly what Bacchus learned about the pros and cons of England (and the purity of its air) from Dr. Pitt, but he was in a position to learn quite a lot. Like James Somerset and probably Dublin as well, Bacchus was a body servant and waiting man. Personal servants by their very job descriptions were well placed to their masters' political views, to overhear conversations and plans, and to acquire valuable information of all sorts. This is an important trait Bacchus and Somerset had in common . . .
From the beginning, myths grew up around the Somerset case; as usual, the myths proved more vivid and longer lasting than the truth. News of supposed emancipation spread from wishful thinking Anglo-Africans and English abolitionists to ill-informed printing offices in the provincial towns, as well as up and down the Eastern Seaboard . . . Enslaved people both in England and the Virginia backcountry heard and believed what they heard; they believed so strongly that they acted on the information and risked their lives by daring to escape. Somerset misconstrued was a giant fiction. Its repercussions in Virginia and elsewhere were greater than its legal reality.
Excerpted from an article by Emma L. Powers, historian, Department of Historical Research, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Originally published in the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, Volume 23, No. 3 (2002), the full article is also available online.