Jim Wares: Though the Heavens Fall

I learned that in 1762, during the Seven Years’ War, a Scottish immigrant to the British Colony of Virginia named Charles Stewart, stood up against a group of vigilantes who were intent on murder. A ship had run aground just off the coast near Norfolk. Its cargo was Spanish prisoners of war. The mob took custody of the Spaniards with the intent of killing them all. The mob had already killed two of the prisoners when Charles Stewart stepped up and confronted the mob. As a result of his action, the lives of the remaining prisoners were saved.

The Spaniards were as much the enemy of Charles Stewart as they were enemy of the mob. But Stewart courageously chose to stand for justice without regard of the consequences. He risked his life to save the lives of his enemies because it was right to do although far from the popular thing to do.

Enter the dichotomy that is humanity.

The same man who had within him the conscious, the moral fortitude, the nobility to do what was right no matter the cost … also purchased and owned human beings … slaves.

In 1749, Charles Stewart had purchased a young boy who had been kidnapped from West Africa. The boy had a name but slavery takes away more than a person’s freedom and liberty. It takes away one’s personhood. It takes away one’s name. We don’t know the boy’s real name because Charles Stewart took that name away and gave the boy a new name … James Somerset.

In a depraved sort of way, James Somerset was more fortunate, if such a word may be considered here, than others enslaved at this time. He wasn’t sent to labor in fields. He was given fine clothing, educated and eventually became Stewart’s personal assistant. As such, Stewart had Somerset accompany him on a business trip to England.

While in England, Somerset, was befriended by a group of abolitionist and free Africans. These convinced Somerset to escape slavery. He did. A month later, Stewart found Somerset, re-kidnapped him and held him in chains on a ship anchored in harbor with the intention of sending Somerset to Jamaica and having him sold as plantation labor. Before the ship sailed, Somerset’s friends filed suit for his release. You see, even though slavery was practiced in England and the English colonies, there was no English law, common law or statute, permitting it.

The case was heard by the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield; a principled man … sort of.

Stewart argued his case based on the vital and hallowed idea of property rights.

Somerset argued his case based on the fact that there was no law making him anyone’s property.

In his decision, Lord Mansfield called the very idea of slavery “odious”. So odious that even if a law sanctioning slavery were to be introduced in Parliament it would fail because such a thing is just so obviously wrong.

Now, Lord Mansfield understood his decision would have far reaching ramifications, that he was about to upend a really, really big apple cart, that he would change reality … when he set Somerset free.

Lord Mansfield had the conscious, the moral fortitude, the nobility to do what was right no matter the cost. Fiat justitia ruat caelum…“Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” He boldly wrote in his decision. Certainly he was courageous man.

Again, enter the dichotomy that is humanity.

Even though Lord Mansfield believed slavery was an odious thing, even though he knew Stewart had no right to own Somerset, even though he understood Somerset had a right to be free, he did everything he possibly could to avoid setting Somerset free because the stars would begin to fall from the sky. He knew his decision would be the beginning of the end of slavery.

Before he gave his decision, Lord Mansfield begged Stewart to just set Somerset free so he wouldn’t need to make a decision. But Stewart was being backed by lobbyist representing plantation owners in the Caribbean who wanted this case to go through and establish the right to own people.

When that didn’t work, he begged the very abolitionist who had brought the case to court on Somerset’s behalf in the first place to simply buy Somerset out right making this case just go away. They refused … on principle. Mansfield must have been desperate. I mean really! Asking an abolitionist to buy a slave?

Mansfield didn’t set Somerset free until he was forced to, even though he believed, he knew, it to be right.

This story is about two things, what is right and what our rights are. The Spanish prisoners of war believed they had a right to parts of the West Indies and Brazil. The British and the Colonies believed they had a right to the West Indies and most of North America. Neither considered the rights of the indigenous peoples to their home. The vigilante mob believed they had a right to kill the Spanish prisoners of war. Charles Stewart believed the Spanish prisoners of war had a right to be taken to a British prison camp to wither and die. Stewart believed he had a right to own property even if the property was a human being. James Somerset believed he had a right to live free. Lord Mansfield believed in the rightness of everyone’s rights as long as they were enumerated in law.

Our rights, because of nature and necessity, are a hierarchy; one is born of another. The origins of any right, all rights, rise from the right to live. From the right to live springs the right to live in liberty. The right to live in liberty demands the right to live in security. Somewhere down the line, we come to the right to own a thing. None of the latter rights can impose on a former right without collapsing the very concept of natural, God and statute given rights. The right to live must supersede all other rights. When they fail this test, rights become a privilege and there is no justice. When the right to own a thing trashes our right to live … something must be done … justice must prevail … though the heavens fall. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at whatjimhaslearnedtoday@yahoo.com