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Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery export ed Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0738206950
ISBN-10: 0738206954
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In England, near the end of the eighteenth century, a legal ruling that came to be known as the Mansfield Judgment set the precedent for outlawing slavery in the modern Western world. Somerset, a black American slave, accompanied his master on a journey to England, where slavery had been outlawed. Somerset legally petitioned Lord Mansfield, the premier jurist of the period, to let him remain in England as a free man. Granville Sharpe, England's leading abolitionist, took up the cause. Wise offers a multilayered examination of the characters--the modest Sharpe and the high-born Mansfield--and legal confluences between British tradition and common law behind this case. He also explores the conflict between the ideals of human rights and the commercial interests of slave traders, insurers, and bankers, and the underlying threat to the social order of oppressive apprenticeships as the institution of slavery was challenged. This is a complex and absorbing look at the legal and social forces that eventually led to the outcry against slavery throughout the Western world. Vernon Ford
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

"A captivating account...Wise brings alive the story...for an entertaining read, pick up Wise's book." -- Law and Politics Book Review5/05

"A detailed account." -- The Economist 2/3/05

"A thorough and convincing account of the case that led to the official banning of slavery in England." -- New York Review of Books7/14/05

"An important book." -- Deseret Morning News 2/18/05

"Fascinating reading." -- Curled Up With a Good Book 1/15/05

"Somerset's trial is full of high drama." -- Cleveland Plain Dealer 2/6/05

"Well-crafted...set[s] forth the legal battles with admirable clarity [and] portray[s] a fascinating gallery of advocates and jurists." -- Boston Globe 1/30/05

"Wise does a good job of guiding the reader through the thicket of eighteenth-century common law...Engaging." -- The Nation 2/14/05

"[Wise's] thoughtful analysis provides an underpinning for the social and legal context of slavery, making this a recommended book." -- Library Journal2/15/05

"[Wise] has an eye for evocative detail and an interest in the trappings and procedures of an 18th-century courtroom ." -- New York Times Book Review 1/9/05
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; export ed edition (January 2, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738206954
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738206950
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,269,565 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ronald H. Clark VINE VOICE on February 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This volume is a compact, but complete, treatment of the famous 1772 Somerset decision by Lord Mansfield that confirmed that slavery was not legal within Great Britain (but left slavery intact in British colonies and possessions). The key actor upon which the entire narrative focuses is abolitionist Granville Sharp, who initiated several cases challenging the legality of slavery in Britain until he was finally successful in Somerset. His crusade demonstrates the merits of not being easily discouraged by initial setbacks. Given the fact that he subsisted on and financed litigation through a clerk's salary, one can only stand in amazement at his determination to terminate the practice. The author does a good job in discussing the background and character of Lord Mansfield, certainly one of the most influential actors in the development of English law. The reconstruction of the trial itself is well done. While the research is predominantly based upon secondary sources, as is appropriate in a "popular" history, the narrative is quite easy for the non-lawyer as well as the legal professional to read and profit from--no mean accomplishment in legal history volumes. The endnotes identify valuable sources for further reading on this topic. I found chapter 16, "The Mansfield Judgment," particularly interesting in that apparently there is no 100% official text of Mansfield's decision. The author also does a good job in discussing post-decision developments that reflected the impact of the holding, including some in America. A good solid treatment of an incredibily important legal development.
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Format: Hardcover
This well-researched and highly readable account of the Somerset case in the gestation period of the Abolitionist movement brings home just how close to us in time is the phenomenon of slavery and the stark contradictions of social justice and the abysmal conditions of class struggle, mostly sanitized in standard histories. The rescue of James Somerset from certain death in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the process of his trial in the labyrinthine system of the British courts is almost a suspence drama. The saga occurs just at the turning point on the question of bondage and freedom and the next generation will struggle on to achieve the result, but this moment shows the breeze picking up before the storm, like a butterfly effect from small changes to massive transformations. Well done account
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Format: Hardcover
As on reads this book we know the author has done a careful and excellent job of research in records which it is great still exist. Somerset's case was decided June 22, 1772 by Lord Mansfield and was a vital step to the eventual ending of slavery. This book is so meticulously researched, with careful citations of every case mentioned, that it is a joy to read.
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Format: Hardcover
Dr. Wise writes in a story telling manner that is easy to read and understand. He tells the legal history of the battle to abolish slavery as it developed a couple of centuries before Abe Lincoln's Emancipation Act speech in the United States. He lets the readers understand the evolutionary factors of the alive world of law, and learn facts about slavery abolishment that many may not know.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a fascinating book on several levels.

First it is the story of a landmark trial that first freed slaves in England - with the comment: "The air of England is too pure for a slave to breath in." This story is well worth telling. The hero of the story is Granville Sharp, a Government clerk who educated himself in the law and used his own small income to bring cases on slavery to the bench.

The second point that I find interesting is the fact that this was done in court. Parliment could have ended slavery at any time, but didn't. This is saying that even 250 years ago the elected officials didn't want to tackle the difficult issues but passed it over to the courts to take the heat. This rings a familar tone with the way the Congress left it to the courts to handle the segregation issues in the United States. (And today they passed the buck to the courts regarding keeping the feeding tube in the lady in Florida.)

Third, this case took place in 1772, long before the American declaration of independence in 1776. It specifically restricted it's enforcement to England proper, not their colonies -- "Colonial slavery, he wrote, was a different matter." Had those words been different, slavery would have been outlawed in the United States as well. What a difference that might have made in the American Revolutionary War? Might it have eliminated the Civil War where 600,000 Americans were killed?

Beyond these issues, the book itself is well researched, written in a manner as interesting as a novel.
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Format: Paperback
It's usually called the Mansfield Decision: the Lord Chief Justice wrote the 1772 opinion that, in outlawing slave status, reinvented England as a Land of the Free. Far better to name it properly as the Somerset Case, because James Somerset had the courage to challenge centuries of legal tradition, and the initiative to find able allies (notably Granville Sharp, the book's "star"). They unearthed and brilliantly deployed the key precedents -- the best of that legal culture -- giving it a bold new progressive dimension. Unfortunately there isn't much on Somerset himself, but author Wise has done his best with a thinly-documented life. Lengthy accounts of English legal reasoning and courtroom procedure will tax many readers, but it richly evokes the London atmosphere in which the trial occurred; this is pleasurable reading compared to most books by legal eagles. After winning his case Somerset vanished from history like so many Blacks in that age. But unlike most other slave resisters he sought his own freedom in a manner that struck a heroic blow for all. We may never know enough to call him a great man, but surely he had greatness within him. Lest we forget.
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