Mansfield, William Murray, First Earl of

Mansfield, William Murray, First Earl of

William Murray, first earl of Mansfield, was an eighteenth-century English lawyer and judge who, along with Sir William Blackstone and Sir Edward Coke, played an important part in molding U.S. law. His revision of Property Law and his formulation of basic principles of contract law provided the basis for modern Commercial Law. Lord Mansfield also is remembered for his decision in Somerset's Case, 1 Lofft's Rep. 1, 20 Howell's State Trials 1, 98 Eng. Rep. 499 (1772), in which he held that there was no legal basis for Slavery in England. This case came to have great significance in the United States, as it presented a legal theory for those opposed to slavery.

Mansfield was born March 2, 1705, in Scone, Scotland. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, and was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1730. From 1742 to 1754, Mansfield acted as Solicitor General of England, and from 1754 to 1756, he served as attorney general. In 1756 he became chief justice of the King's Bench, and he served on the court until 1788. In recognition of these achievements, he was created first earl of Mansfield.

Mansfield departed from the traditional role of an English judge. He did not seek to formulate law solely on the basis of Stare Decisis, which relies on the exact holdings of previous decisions. Instead, Mansfield sought to determine general principles inherent in the decisions reached by common-law courts and then to apply those principles to the case at hand. This gave Mansfield great flexibility in responding to new varieties of litigation that came with the development of English commerce. Also, Mansfield educated himself about commercial practices. Because of his growing sensitivity to their interests, members of the English commercial classes were encouraged to bring more of their disputes to his court and to let their affairs be governed by his common-law principles.

In deciding commercial-law cases, Mansfield adopted the guiding principle of Good Faith, which demanded an adherence to moral obligations. In contract law he believed that the parties' intentions—rather than out-of-date, rigid common-law rules—ought to be used to set the scope of agreements and to settle disputes. In the area of real property, Mansfield tried, against much resistance, to update and modify a species of law that was both archaic and arcane. Throughout his tenure on the bench, Mansfield demonstrated a consistent desire to modernize the law of commerce.

Mansfield's decision in Somerset's Case dealt a fatal blow to English slaveholding interests. In this 1772 case, a slave brought to England by his master had escaped and had been recaptured.

Antislavery activists demanded his release and sought a writ of Habeas Corpus (an order of protection against illegal imprisonment), arguing that England did not have a law permitting slavery. Mansfield ordered that the slave be released, holding that slavery was "so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law." Mansfield did not rule that slavery was always illegal, only that it would take a positive law (an act of Parliament) to legitimate it. Absent a positive law that would recognize the powers of a slave owner over a slave, English courts would not uphold a slaveholder's claim to a slave. This decision was embraced by opponents of U.S. slavery in nonslaveholding states. Somerset's Case ultimately shaped the federal system in the United States, making slavery there a product of state, not federal, statutory law. It also permitted runaway slaves in the United States to claim legal protection if they escaped to a nonslaveholding state.

"I desire nothing so much as that all questions of mercantile law be fully settled and ascertained; and it is of much more consequence that they should be so, than which way the decision is."
—William, First Earl of Mansfield

Mansfield died March 20, 1793, in London.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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