Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860

Back to Collection Connections

A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker.

[Detail] A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker

The Slave Trade

Several documents relevant to the early years of American history remind readers of the international nature of slavery and the slave trade. These documents include three that deal with a landmark 1772 British case that was cited in a number of later American cases. In this case, a British man bought a slave named Sommersett in Virginia and returned home to England, where Sommersett left the man’s service. The owner had Sommersett seized and put on a ship for sale in Jamaica. A writ of habeas corpus was sought to free Sommersett, and the British court ruled in his favor, stating that slavery was illegal in England. One document, “An Argument in the Case of James Sommersett,” presents the arguments on behalf of Sommersett; the second document, “Candid Reflections upon the Judgement Lately Awarded by the Court of King's Bench in Westminster-Hall,” presents arguments against the decision. The British were still debating the decision in 1787, as seen in the pro-slavery view printed in the London General Evening Post, “A Letter to Philo Africanus, upon Slavery.”

  • What were the facts of the Sommersett case?
  • What were the arguments in favor of freeing Sommersett?
  • What arguments were made against freeing Sommersett?
  • What decision was reached in the case?
  • What was the significance of the decision for people beyond the direct participants in the case? (Hint: Try searching the collection using the keyword Sommersett for evidence of how the case was referred to in subsequent cases, including cases in the United States.)

Several British cases from the 18th century relate to crimes against slaves. Covered in two documents was a British case involving the murder of two female slaves on board the slave ship Recovery, a slave trader. One of the documents, as suggested by the title “The Trial of Captain John Kimber, for the Supposed Murder of an African girl,” takes a pro-Kimber view. The other, “The Trial of Captain John Kimber, for the Murder of Two Female Negro Slaves,” raises questions about Kimber’s defense, suggesting that “the whole crew might have conceived that the killing of a slave on board a ship was an offence not punishable by law.”

  • Compare the two accounts of the trial. Where do they agree? Where do they disagree?
  • Based on your assessment of the two accounts, create a timeline showing the events that occurred on board the Recovery.
  • If you had been on the jury in the Kimber case, would you have voted for conviction or acquittal? Explain your answer.


While the United States outlawed the slave trade in 1808 and most European nations had, by treaty, banned the practice as of 1820, cases related to slave trading appeared throughout the period leading up to the Civil War, demonstrating that making the act illegal did not end it. In charging a grand jury in Boston in 1819, Justice Joseph Story talked at length about the continuation of the slave trade following its being made illegal. He said, in part:

Under such circumstances it might well be supposed that the Slave Trade would in practice be extinguished;--that virtuous men would by their abhorrence stay its polluted march, and wicked men would be overawed by its potent punishment. But unfortunately the case is far otherwise. We have but too many melancholy proofs from unquestionable sources, that it is still carried on with all the implacable ferocity and insatiable rapacity of former times. Avarice has grown more subtle in its evasions; and watches and seizes its prey with an appetite quickened rather than suppressed by its guilty vigils. American citizens are steeped up to their very mouths (I scarcely use too bold a figure) in this stream of iniquity -- They throng to the Coasts of Africa under the stained flags of Spain and Portugal, sometimes selling abroad "their cargoes of despair," and sometimes bringing them into some of our southern ports, and there under the forms of the law defeating the purposes of the law itself, and legalizing their inhuman but profitable adventures. I wish I could say that New England and New Englandmen were free from this deep pollution. But there is some reason to believe, that they who drive a loathsome traffic, "and buy the muscles and the bones of men," are to be found here also. It is to be hoped the number is small; but our cheeks may well burn with shame while a solitary case is permitted to go unpunished.

(Page 5, “A Charge Delivered to the Grand Juries of the Circuit Court”)

Read Justice Story’s entire commentary on the slave trade and consider the following questions:

  • For what actions does Justice Story praise the United States and Great Britain? Which country appears to have done more to stop the slave trade? Why?
  • Into what categories does Justice Story divide people taken into the slave trade? Do you think it matters into what category a slave fit? Why or why not?
  • Describe the conditions in which the slaves traveled to the Americas.
  • How does Justice Story draw on religion in making his case against the slave trade? Would a justice today make a similar argument? Why or why not?
  • Justice Story used the word inhuman to describe the slave trade. If you had to describe the slave trade in one word, what word would you choose? Justify your choice.

Steven Spielberg’s film made people aware of one slave-trading case, that of the Amistad. The facts of the case are essentially this: in 1839, Portuguese slave hunters captured a group of Africans and sent them to Cuba, where they were bought by two Spanish planters who put them aboard the Amistad and set sail for their plantations in the Caribbean. The Africans killed the captain and cook and demanded that the planters sail to Africa. The Amistad was seized off New York; the planters were set free, and the Africans were initially charged with murder. The murder charges were dismissed, but the Africans remained in custody as the two planters, the Spanish government, and even the captain of the ship that brought the passengers of the Amistad to land tried to claim them. The case was further complicated by the Van Buren administration’s attempts to influence the judicial branch. Abolitionists rallied around the Africans’ cause. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Africans had been kidnapped and illegally sold as slaves; those who survived were returned to Africa. The collection contains the arguments of two lawyers for the Africans, Roger Baldwin and John Quincy Adams. As you read these arguments and learn more about the case, keep in mind that, as historian Eric Foner has pointed out ( (external link)), “Rather than being receptive to abolitionist sentiment, the courts were among the main defenders of slavery.” Because this case dealt with the international slave trade, its ruling had no impact on the status of slaves in the United States.