Popular history often credits Lord Mansfield with freeing the slaves in England by his decision in the Somerset case. That he did not do so is by now agreed and is a point featured in modern scholarship on slavery. This is the main burden, for example, of F. O. Shyllon's Black Slaves in Britain (1974). How extensively the popular history should be revised has not been settled. Newly discovered sources now permit a reassessment of this question.
When the Somerset case arose in 1772, it was brimming with portent. The largest specter was the supposed mercantile dislocation that would follow abolition. Additional questions seemed unavoidable, such as the legality of a contract between a slave and his master, and the implications for other contracts if the slave contract were invalidated. The protracted case was an occasion of high drama in which early abolitionist efforts (especially those of Granville Sharp) were pitted against vested trading interests.
Mansfield was caught in the middle. He was genuinely ambivalent about the subject of slavery. He accepted and endorsed the widely assumed mercantile importance of the slave trade, yet he doubted the validity of theoretical justifications of slavery, and he sought to redress instances of individual cruelty to slaves. By drawing on previously unexamined manuscript reports of the Somerset case, Lord Mansfield's trial notes, and newspaper accounts of the Court of King's Bench activity, this article will demonstrate the extreme delicacy of Mansfield's position and will establish more fully than has before been possible the ways in which Mansfield accommodated the various competing interests. In the process, the question of exactly what Mansfield said in his Somerset opinion should be put to rest.