"I would suggest that [Austen] was quite deliberately gesturing at the cultural discourse that [Mansfield] represents, at his name’s indexical link to a particularly charged national moment... It is worth contemplating what Austen’s contemporaries would have understood that gesture to mean, given the reputational baggage of the name “Mansfield” in Regency zeitgeist and politics.
-- Danielle Christmas, "Lord Mansfield and the Slave Ship Zong,"
Persuasions online Vol 1, number 2, 2021
- Many novelists used the name "Mansfield" without any indication that it carried cultural baggage. It was just a solid English name.
- People referenced Lord Mansfield (1756–1788) in relation to many legal issues, including investments, insurance, libel, religious freedom, and so on, and made mention of his probity and patience. But it's not easy to find references to Somerset v. Stewart before 1840 in the popular literature. They probably exist, but I haven't found any. (I am not speaking of law books which are not read by a general public)
Let’s take a more contemporary example: the reputational baggage of JFK. I’m old enough to remember when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was president. Though I was a young child, I remember the day of his assassination vividly. And I remember how people spoke of him and how his reputation gradually changed.
During the 60’s he was a secular saint. But what comes to mind now when someone mentions JKF? What is your top-of-mind association? That he was the first Catholic president? His inaugural speech ("Ask not what your country can do for you")? That brief shining moment known as Camelot? His glamorous wife Jackie? The Bay of Pigs? The Cuban Missile Crisis? The Vietnam War? His NASA pledge? His war record in WWII? His speech in Berlin? Little John-John saluting at his funeral? Or, do you think of his multiple extra-marital affairs? His sharing a mistress with a mob boss? The way his medical problems were kept a secret from the public? The Kennedy clan shenanigans in general? The evidence that his Pulitzer prize-winning book was ghostwritten?
if I saw a novel titled "Kennedy Park," I would expect the author to work in some reference to the allusion in the novel's denouement. I'd expect some kind of tie-in, not an allusion which is just left hanging there. I also would not expect that my top-of-mind recollection about Kennedy--or Mansfield--would be the same as everybody else's top of mind recollection. I will grant you that the fact of the Antigua plantation means there is a slavery connection which possibly connects to the title. But it's hard for me to believe that an author of her skill and polish would just leave the allusion hanging there.
When Lord Mansfield was alive and serving in Parliament, he was a target for the political opposition. We don't need to become experts in Lord Mansfield and his career to appreciate the fact that, in common with all politicians, his motives and integrity were questioned, and his policies and his court rulings were attacked. The English radical Thomas Paine was dismissive of him: “The talents of Lord Mansfield can be estimated at best no higher than those of a sophist.”
Horace Walpole, English man of letters, apparently loathed Lord Mansfield. Walpole’s language suggests a political animus, and without delving deeper into the whole thing, I provide this quote simply to give a sample as evidence that Mansfield was not universally revered: “The dismay and confusion of Lord Mansfield was obvious to the whole audience; nor did one peer interpose a syllable in his behalf; even the Court (whom he had been serving by wresting the law, and perverting it to the destruction of liberty, and his guilt in which practices was proclaimed by his dastard conscience) despised his pusillanimity and meanness…” and much more in the same vein.
An anonymous writer named Junius conducted blistering political attacks on Lord Mansfield, but these occurred before the Somerset case, so there is no reference to them.
Mansfield was a well-known national figure long before his rulings on the Zong case and the Somerset case drew publicity in the ongoing abolition debate, so therefore his name was associated with many political and legal issues.
Yet think a Day will come when Fate’s decree, and angry men shall wreak this wrong on thee.
Here is an 1781 editorial which opposes the Somerset case and calls Lord Mansfield a "republican" who "under the vile pretence of unalienable rights" has set a dangerous precedent which "deprives the master of his legal property."
The first full-length biography of Mansfield came out five years after his death and was written by John Holliday: The life of William late Earl of Mansfield, 1797. It runs to more than 500 pages, and it does not mention "slave," "slavery," or "Somerset" in the the text or the index, although many other of his cases are discussed. Neither is the now-infamous Zong case mentioned. This biography came out in subsequent editions and years as well.
In between 1797 and the 1830's, you can find mentions of the Somerset case in relation to the abolitionist who spearheaded the campaign to bring the case to court: Granville Sharp. Here is a typical example. which quotes a memoir of Sharp. Sharp wanted posterity to remember his role in the case. But "Sharp Park" doesn't have the same ring to it as "Mansfield Park." As well, it is mentioned in accounts of famous trials.
Other, briefer biographies of Lord Mansfield were included in encyclopedias and compendiums, with mentions of the Somerset case emerging in the 1840's:
- The Cabinet Cyclopaedia by Henry Roscoe, 1830, features a 57 page biography of Mansfield in an anthology of biographies. Roscoe mentions decisions which touch on religious liberty and civil rights, as well as libel and insurance, but no mention of Somerset v. Stewart.
- A Dictionary of Biography. Comprising the most eminent characters of all ages, nations, and professions ... Embellished with numerous portraits. Richard Alfred Davenport, ed. R. Griffin & Company: Glasgow, 1831 and reprinted in several editions. One quarter-page biography, no mention of Somerset.
- Lives of eminent and illustrious Englishmen, ed. by G. G. Cunningham. United Kingdom, 1836. 10 page biography of Lord Mansfield doesn’t mention Somerset.
- Lives of the Most Eminent British Judges, by Henry Roscoe, duplicate of the 1830 article above.
- Lives of Eminent English Judges of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. By William Newland Welsby. T. & J. W. Johnson, 1846. 80 page biography in an anthology. Detailed review of his life and his cases. No mention of Dido, but mentions his nieces. This anthology does mention the Somerset case but in connection with an earlier judge, Sir John Holt, not in Mansfield's biography. “Great as are the respect and gratitude with which all right-minded Englishmen must regard the memory of the Lord Chief Justice Holt, both as a criminal judge and an interpreter of constitutional law, he has no less a title to the veneration of every philanthropist, as the first judge who declared the soil of Britain incapable of being profaned by slavery….” Speaking of Holt, “in a subsequent case in 1707” Lord Holt declared, “no man can have a property in another, but in special cases, as in a villein, or a captive taken in war; but there is no such thing as a slave by the law of England.” It was not, nevertheless, until the solemn decision of the same Court in Somerset’s case in 1772, that this became an unquestioned principle of law, and could be made the exulting theme of the most thoroughly English among our modern poets [Cowper].”
- Baron Campbell, John Campbell. The Lives of the Chief Justices of England: From the Norman Conquest Till the Death of Lord Mansfield. Discusses and praises the Somerset case. John Murray, 1849.
- Leslie Stephen’s definitive Dictionary of National Biography (1895-1900) does include the Somerset case in its biography of Lord Mansfield. But as we've seen, biographers earlier in the century did not regard the Somerset case as one of Mansfield's most prominent decisions.
In 1845, American lawyer and abolitionist Alvan Stewart praised Lord Mansfield for the Somerset decision and placed it in historical context: “But oh! What shall we say of the sublime humanity of Lord Mansfield and his compeers, who were not afraid to confess they had been wrong, and had the magnanimity to say it before a slaveholding age? This day saw the longest stride which British greatness ever took on the highway of human glory.
"Would to heaven that all courts might imitate the illustrious example in administering justice in the sublime humility, which dignified the court and exalted our kind, as in the case of Somerset! The great principles established in the Somerset case awakened the philanthropy of England, and put forth its strength in 1783, 1788, 1792, 1797, and finally, in 1806, was successful in the abolition of the African slave trade by Parliament. Wilberforce, Pitt, and Fox, were foiled again and again, in Parliament, the theatre of their eloquence, and seat of their power, but justice finally prevailed. This was the first great blow struck for the man of Africa, in three hundred years, from the beginning of his American and West Indian enslavement.
- I have found no mention by Austen scholars of the possible connection until the 1980's.
- Other authors used the name "Mansfield" for their characters without evidently referring to slavery.
- Authors who referenced Lord Mansfield did not refer to his Somerset ruling.
- Broader discussions of Lord Mansfield in literature did not reference his Somerset ruling.
- His first major posthumous biography does not mention the Somerset ruling.
- Praise for his Somerset ruling became more prominent in the 1840's and afterwards