342: Though the Heavens May Fall by Steven M. Wise

by Gerard

342.4208625: Wise, Steven M. Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery. US: De Capo Press, 2005. 225 pp. ISBN 0-306-81450-1.

Dewey Construction:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 340: Law
  • 342: Constitutional and administrative law
  • +42: In England and Wales
  • +08625: Concerning slaves, serfs, or peons

In 1772, a landmark case was presented before The Court of King’s Bench in London. Lord Mansfield, the celebrated jurist of his day, and three associate judges heard the case of James Somerset, a black man from Africa, who had been sold into slavery to Charles Steuart, transported to the West Indies, and then to America. Once in England, he escaped from his master and, with the help of an 18th-century legal dream team, petitioned to be considered a free man under English law.

This is his story.

On June 22, 1772, after hearing the arguments for and against the condition of Mr. Somerset being a personal slave (and therefore the property of Charles Steuart), Lord Mansfield finally declared in his judgment that no man had the right to buy or sell another man on English soil, and that no man could forcibly remove another from English soil against his will. In another words, once a foreign slave breathed English air, he was free to leave his life of servitude on his own accord.

Steven Wise’s Though the Heavens May Fall is not a book you can just barrel through. Normally, a 225-page book would be a cake walk for me to finish in 2 days, but this one requires more of the reader than just a passive stance. Wise’s historical research and nuanced approach to the case law urges the reader to pause and reflect on the nature of humanness, the validity of the feudal system, and how each country’s laws affect another’s. He also does a decent job of explaining habeas corpus law (which was lost on me in the beginning).

While the material would make for a rather dry-as-dust TV movie, it still commands respect and humility. Five men stood by James Somerset’s side and earnestly tried to shape the mind and heart of Lord Mansfield, using all known legal precedent as well as contemporary philosophy. On this, our American Independence Day, freedom and liberty are prized above all else. There was day not too long ago when personal freedom wasn’t so prevalent; it took the voices of those brave few to secure it for everyone, no matter what the cost.

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