Texas Wesleyan Law Review
Canonical cases like Somerset v. Stewart resonate beyond their particular historical context because they change or crystallize critical legal and political debates. Analyzing the legacy of such cases is a complex task, fraught not only with the difficulties attendant to knowing history, but also with the conundrum of reading the past through the present. Somerset's Case has left particularly complicated legacies, partly because of its influence on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, English law has always shaped American legal doctrine. But because the question at the heart of the case entailed the status of a slave-James Somerset-whose master had brought him to England from the Americas, the transatlantic character and significance of the decision was embedded within the facts of the case itself. Adjudicating the controversy in Somerset required negotiating slavery as a transnational enterprise immersed in multiple bodies of law. Part of the challenge in assessing Somerset then is, that from its inception, it was a case that had multiple audiences and legal trajectories-speaking both directly and implicitly to the issue of slavery and freedom, in England and in the colonies. Given this complex history, it is fair to say that there never was a singular legacy of the case, and certainly not one that can be articulated now. Rather, there are multiple and conflicting trajectories which culminate in the case, becoming one of the most significant in both American and English law.
Cheryl I. Harris,
“Too Pure an Air:” Somerset’s Legacy From Anti-slavery to Colorblindness,
Tex. Wesleyan L. Rev.
Available at: https://doi.org/10.37419/TWLR.V13.I2.6