At last, in 1772, only three years after this advertisement, the single question of the legality of Slavery was presented to Lord Mansfield, on a writ of habeas corpus. A poor negro, named Sommersett, brought to England as a slave, became ill, and, with an inhumanity disgraceful even to Slavery, was turned adrift upon the world. Through the charity of an estimable man, the eminent Abolitionist, Granville Sharp, he was restored to health, when his unfeeling and avaricious master again claimed him as bondman. The claim was repelled. After elaborate and protracted discussion in Westminster Hall, marked by rarest learning and ability, Lord Mansfield, with discreditable reluctance, sullying his great judicial name, but in trembling obedience to the genius of the British Constitution, pronounced a decree which made the early boast a practical verity, and rendered Slavery forever impossible in England. More than fourteen thousand persons, at that time held as slaves, and breathing English air,—four times as many as are now found in this national metropolis,—stepped forth in the happiness and dignity of free men.
With this guiding example I cannot despair. The time will yet come when the boast of our fathers will be made a practical verity also, and Court or Congress, in the spirit of this British judgment, will proudly declare that nowhere under the Constitution can man hold property in man. For the Republic such a decree will be the way of peace and safety. As Slavery is banished from the national jurisdiction, it will cease to vex our national politics. It may linger in the States as a local institution; but it will no longer engender national animosities, when it no longer demands national support.
From this general review of the relations of the National Government to Slavery, I pass to the consideration of THE TRUE NATURE OF THE PROVISION FOR THE RENDITION OF FUGITIVES FROM SERVICE, embracing an examination of this provision in the Constitution, and especially of the recent Act of Congress in pursuance thereof. As I begin this discussion, let me bespeak anew your candor. Not in prejudice, but in the light of history and of reason, we must consider this subject. The way will then be easy and the conclusion certain.
Much error arises from the exaggerated importance now attached to this provision, and from assumptions with regard to its origin and primitive character. It is often asserted that it was suggested by some special difficulty, which had become practically and extensively felt, anterior to the Constitution. But this is one of the myths or fables with which the supporters of Slavery have surrounded their false god. In the articles of Confederation, while provision is made for the surrender of fugitive criminals, nothing is said of fugitive slaves or servants; and there is no evidence in any quarter, until after the National Convention, of hardship or solicitude on this account. No previous voice was heard to express desire for any provision on the subject. The story to the contrary is a modern fiction.