“An accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature”: The Somerset Case in Williamsburg

If I was Counsel for Somerset the Negro, (says a Correspondent) I would take up the Matter higher than any of his Counsel have yet done.  I would urge, and I think I could prove, that he neither now is, nor ever was, the Property of his Master; that the original Vendor had no Right to sell, nor the original Purchaser to buy him; that all Mankind, as they are born, ought to live, equally free; and that the Slave Trade, whatever the mercantile World may urge to the contrary, is an infamous bartering of human Flesh and Blood, an accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature.

This strenuous opinion is remarkable not that it was printed at all–it first appeared in the London Public Advertiser of 16 May 1772–but that it was reprinted in the Virginia Gazette of Alexander Purdie and John Dixon just over two months later, on 23 July.  Regardless of the actual holding in the case of James Somerset, which held that slaves were servants under a 1679 statute and not chattel property, which did not actually make Somerset, or any other slave, legally free, the perception was quite different.  Somerset himself was said to have reported to a relative that he told the servants that “Lord Mansfield had given them [slaves in England] their freedom.”  The news spread across the Atlantic. In late 1774, one planter advertised that an enslaved man in Virginia had run away, probably to get to England, based on “the Knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s Case.” It certainly stands as a strong reminder of the power of perception to shape opinion and behavior, rather than the actual facts of the case, of the difference between rhetoric and reality, especially when it comes to our understanding of the personal and constitutional tensions involved in the struggle for independence.

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“So very contradictory to Humanity”: A Loyalist’s View of Slavery

Beverley, RobertIn July 1761, Robert Beverley arrived back in Virginia after 11 years at school in England, first at Beverley Grammar School, then to Wakefield, and finally to Trinity College, Cambridge.  A friend at the time described him as exhibiting “the best Sense, Abilities & many Excellent Qualities.”  Having left the Tidewater when he was 10 years old, he returned to an alien place. His father had died when he was away, leaving him the owner of Blandfield Plantation and its community of enslaved men and women, one of the largest in the colony.  Whatever the 10-year-old Robert might have felt about slavery when he left Virginia in 1750, the 21-year-old had very decided views on the subject.  #OTD in 1761, within days of his return, he expressed to a London merchant his “aversion to Slavery” as “‘something so very contradictory to Humanity.”  He went on to explain that “if ever I bid adieu to Virginia it will be from that cause alone.”

Robert Beverley did “bid adieu” to Virginia, in a way, as he remained staunchly loyal to the British world that his countrymen were bent on destroying.  He stated unequivocally that “I see so many Beauties and so great a display of political Wisdom in our Constitution that I cannot look upon any attempt to subvert it with Patience.” And so he retreated to Blandfield to wait out the American Revolution and never again engage in public affairs.

“The only part in which this Colony is vulnerable”: James Madison, Slaves, and the Coming of the Revolution in Virginia

On this date in June 1775, 24-year-old James Madison gave voice to the great fear of many free Virginians: that the pernicious institution of slavery would some day, in some way, be their undoing.  That day seemed, at least to Madison in far off Orange County, to be at hand with the collapse of the royal government in Williamsburg and rumors that the governor, Lord Dunmore, was intent on arming the slaves against their masters.  Enslaved men and women, after all, made up more than a third of the population across the colony, and were a distinct majority in some places, like the Tidewater.  The fear of slaves with guns was the subtext of the “Gunpowder Incident” in Williamsburg in April, when sailors under Dunmore’s command seized 15 half-barrels of powder from the local magazine.  The town rose up against him claiming that they needed the powder to defend themselves against rumored slave insurrections, while Dunmore countered–at least publicly–with the same claim, that he needed to secure the powder to keep it from falling into the hands of slaves.  In the immediate aftermath of the face-off between the governor and the town, Dunmore fed the flames of fear by threatening to “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes” if even a hint of powder was fired at him or his officers.

Enslaved men and women, too, heard the whispers and appeared at the Governor’s Palace, only to be turned away with the news that Dunmore and his family had fled to a warship anchored off Yorktown.  As if to punctuate the matter, two Norfolk slaves were executed for participating in a conspiracy to raise an insurrection there.  Dunmore would eventually fulfill his promise, with his famous proclamation issued in November.  But for the time being, both free and enslaved Virginians would grow increasingly aware of “the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable.”

“It is imagined our Governor has been tampering with the Slaves & that he has it in contemplation to make great Use of them in case of a civil war in this province. To say the truth, that is the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable; & if we should be subdued, we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret. But we have a good cause & great Courage which are a great support.”