Somerset v. Stewart (1772): Conference Philadelphia

This year (2022) saw the 250th anniversary of the famous decision by Lord Mansfield in the case of Somerset v. Stewart. It is always worth remembering that Somerset visited Edinburgh and knew Stewart’s relatives in Scotland’s capital. Indeed, Stewart himself is buried in Greyfriars’ Kirkyard.

The anniversary of Mansfield’s decision has passed surprisingly unnoticed, except for an important conference in Philadelphia, held under the auspices of the American Philosophical Society. It was entitled: “Somerset v Steuart @ 250: Facts, Interpretations, and Legacies”. The programme was as follows:

Wednesday, November 30

Virtual Discussion: Somerset v Steuart @ 250: Facts, Interpretations, and Legacies

1:00-2:00pm ET [Zoom webinar]

Alan Taylor (University of Virginia)
Christopher Brown (Columbia University)
Holly Brewer (University of Maryland, College Park) Manisha Sinha (University of Connecticut)

Moderated by David Waldstreicher (Graduate Center, CUNY)


Thursday, December 1

Benjamin Franklin Hall 427 Chestnut St.

8:30-9:00 a.m.: Light breakfast

9:00–9:15 a.m.: Welcome, Patrick Spero, Librarian and Director, Library and Museum, American Philosophical Society


9:15 – 10:30 a.m.: Opening Discussion

The Somerset Case: A Historiographical Overview”

Dana Rabin (University of Illinois)

“Lord Mansfield and the Uses of Historical Myth: An Historiography of the Somerset Case in the 20th century”
Harvey R. Neptune (Temple University)

Discussant: Matthew Mason (Brigham Young University)

10:30-11:00 a.m.: Coffee Break


1:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.: Session 1: Constitutions

“The same indispensable duty operates throughout”: War, Captivity, and the ‘Domestication’ of
Slavery in Somerset v. Steuart”

John Blanton (City College of New York)

“The Lawyers’ Somerset”

Daniel Hulsebosch (New York University)

“”But only positive law:” Somerset and the Nature of Discretion”

Matthew Crow (Hobart and William Smith Colleges)

Discussant: Michael Meranze (University of California Los Angeles)


12:15 – 1:00 p.m.: Lunch

1:00 – 2:00 p.m.: Session 2: Boston

Somerset, the Bible, & the End of Hereditary Slavery in Massachusetts”

Nicholas Wood (Spring Hill College)

“Somerset in Boston”

Grant Stanton (University of Pennsylvania)

Discussant: Kathleen Brown (University of Pennsylvania)


2:15 – 3:15 p.m.: Session 3: News

“Before Somerset: How British Slaves Shared News of Emancipation and Rebellion in the Eighteenth Century”

Justin Pope (Missouri University of Science and Technology)

“Somerset v. Steuart: Who Knew What, When, and How?”

Helena Yoo Roth (Graduate Center, CUNY)

Discussant: Asheesh Kapur Siddique (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

3:15-3:30 p.m.: Break


3:30 – 4:45 p.m.: Session 4: Fugitives

“Property in Mobile People: Captivity, Forced Migrations, and Enslavement in the Eighteenth

Century British Empire”

Scott Heerman (University of Miami)

“From slavery to servitude to freedom: the gradual end of slavery in England in the wake of the Somerset decision”

Simon Newman (University of Wisconsin)

“ Jacob Duryee, the Somerset Case, the Book of Negroes, and the British Evacuation of New York City in 1783”

Marcus Daniel (University of Hawai’i at Manoa)

Discussant: Richard Blackett (Vanderbilt University)


Friday, December 2

Benjamin Franklin Hall 427 Chestnut St.

9:15 – 10:30 a.m.: Session 5: Actors/Biography

“Somerset v. Steuart  as an American Case: Reconstructing James Somerset’s Colonial Networks”

Kirsten Sword (Indiana University, Bloomington)

“The ‘Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray’ in the Wake of Somerset v. Steuart””

Jennifer Germann (Ithaca College)

“Mansfieldism: How the Mason-Dixon Line Contributed to the Somerset Decision”

Henry Buehner (Jefferson University)

Discussant: Rachel Shelden (Penn State University)


10:30 – 10:45 a.m.: Coffee Break

10:45 – 12:00 p.m.: Session 6: Proslavery

“Somerset and the Birth of Racial Capitalism in the West Indies”

Trevor Burnard (University of Hull)

“”Free White Persons”: Slaveholder Citizenship Politics in the Early United States”

Paddy Riley (Reed College)

“‘A Law Totally different from that Which Exists in Virginia’: The Somerset Decision’s Effects on British and and Virginian Abolition Debates”

Adam Thomas (Western Carolina University)

Discussant: Paul Finkelman (Gustavus Adolphus College)


12:00 – 1:00 p.m.: Lunch
1:00 p.m – 2:00 p.m.: Session 7: Antislavery

“Subjection, Protection, and Sovereignty: Another Somerset Principle in American Abolitionism”

Evan Turiano (Queens College, CUNY)

“”Somerset’ by Inches: Fugitives form Slavery, Enslaved Travelers, and etc steady Accumulation of Free Soil”
Jordan Grant (American University)

Discussant: Sarah Barringer Gordon (University of Pennsylvania) 2:00 – 2:15 p.m.: Break

2:15 – 3:00 p.m. Wrap-up/Final Thoughts