WHEN our ancestors came to this country, they brought with them the common law of England, including the writ of habeas corpus, (the essential principle of which, as will hereafter be shown, is to deny the right of property in man,) the trial by jury, and the other great principles of liberty, which prevail in England, and which have made it impossible that her soil should be trod by the foot of a slave.
These principles were incorporated into all the charters, granted to the colonies, (if all those charters were like those I have examined, and I have examined nearly all of them.) ‑‑ The general provisions of those charters, as will be seen from the extracts given in the note, were, that the laws of the colonies should "not be repugnant or contrary, but, as nearly as circumstances would allow, conformable to the laws, statutes and rights of our kingdom of England." fn4[*22]
Those charters were the fundamental constitutions of the colonies, with some immaterial exceptions, up to the time of the revolution; as much so as our national and state constitutions are now the fundamental laws of our governments.
The authority of these charters, during their continuance, and the general authority of the common law, prior to the revolution, have been recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States. fn5 [*23]
No one of all these charters that I have examined ‑‑ and I have examined nearly all of them ‑‑ contained the least intimation that slavery had, or could have any legal existence under them. Slavery was therefore as much unconstitutional in the colonies, as it was in England.
It was decided by the Court of King's Bench in England ‑‑ Lord Mansfield being Chief Justice ‑‑ before our revolution, and while the English Charters were the fundamental law of the colonies -- that the principles of English liberty were so plainly incompatible with slavery, that even if a slaveholder, from another part of the world, brought his slave into England ‑‑ though only for a temporary purpose, and with no intention of remaining ‑‑ he nevertheless thereby gave the slave his liberty.
Previous to this decision, the privilege of bringing slaves into England, for temporary purposes, and of carrying them away, had long been tolerated.
This decision was given in the year 1772.fn6 And for aught I see, it was equally obligatory in this country as in England, and must have freed every slave in this country, if the question had then been raised here. But the slave knew not his rights, and had no one to raise the question lot him.
The fact, that slavery was tolerated in the colonies, is no evidence of its legality; for slavery was tolerated, to a certain extent, in England, (as we have already seen,) for many years previous to the decision just cited ‑‑ that is, the holders of slaves from abroad were allowed to bring their slaves into England, hold them during their stay there, and carry them away when they went. But the toleration of this practice did not make it lawful, notwithstanding all customs, not palpably and grossly contrary to the principles of English liberty, have great weight, in England, in establishing law.
The fact, that England tolerated, (i. e. did not punish criminally,) the African slave‑trade at that time, could not legally establish slavery in the colonies, any more than it did in England ‑‑ especially in defiance of the positive requirements of the charters, that the colonial legislation should be consonant to reason, and not repugnant to the laws of England.
Besides, the mere toleration of the slave trade could not make slavery itself ‑‑ the right of property in man ‑‑ lawful anywhere; [*24] not even on board the slave ship. Toleration of a wrong is not law. And especially the toleration of a wrong, (i. e. the bare omission to punish it criminally,) does not legalize one's claim to property obtained by such wrong. Even if a wrong can be legalized at all, so as to enable one to acquire rights of property by such wrong, it can be done only by an explicit and positive provision.
The English statutes, on the subject of the slave trade, (so far as I have seen,) never attempted to legalize the right of property in man, in any of the thirteen North American colonies. It is doubtful whether they ever attempted to do it anywhere else. It is also doubtful whether Parliament had the power ‑‑ or perhaps rather it is certain that they had not the power ‑‑ to legalize it anywhere, if they had attempted to do so.fn7 And the cautious and curious phraseology of their statutes on the subject, indicates plainly that they themselves either doubted their power to legalize it, or feared to exercise it. They have therefore chosen to connive at slavery, to insinuate, intimate, and imply their approbation of it, rather than risk an affirmative enactment declaring that one man may be the property of another. But Lord Mansfield said, in Somerset's case, that slavery was "so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law." No such positive law (I Presume) was ever passed by Parliament ‑‑ certainly not with reference to any of these thirteen colonies.
The statute of 1788, (which I have not seen,) in regard to the slave trade, may perhaps have relieved those engaged in it, in certain cases, from their liability to be punished criminally for the act. But there is a great difference between a statute, that should merely screen a person from punishment for a crime, and one that should legalize his right to property acquired by the crime. Besides, this act was passed after the separation between America and England, and therefore could have done nothing towards legalizing slavery in the United States, even if it had legalized it in the English dominions.
The statutes of 1750, (23, George 2d, Ch. 31,) may have possibly authorized, by implication, (so far as Parliament could thus authorize,) the colonial governments, (if governments they' could be called,) on the coast of Africa, to allow slavery under [*25] certain circumstances, and within the "settlements" on that coast. But, if it did, it was at most a grant of a merely local authority. It gave no authority to carry slaves from the African coast. But even if it had purported distinctly to authorize the slave trade from Africa to America, and to legalize the right of property in the particular slaves thereafter brought from Africa to America, it would nevertheless have done nothing towards legalizing the right of property in the slaves that had been brought to, and born in, the colonies for an hundred and thirty years previous to the statute. Neither the statute, nor any right of property acquired under it, (in the individual slaves thereafterwards brought from Africa,) would therefore avail anything for the legality of slavery in this country now; because the descendants of those brought from Africa under the act, cannot now be distinguished from the descendants of those who had, for the hundred and thirty years previous, been held in bondage without law.
But the presumption is, that, even after this statute was passed in 1750, if the slave trader's right of property in the slave he was bringing to America, could have been brought before an English court for adjudication, the same principles would have been held to apply to it, as would have applied to a case arising within the island of Great Britain. And it must therefore always have been held by English courts, (in consistency with the decisions in Somerset's case,) that the slave trader had no legal ownership of his slave. And if the slave trader had no legal right of property in his slave, he could transfer no legal right of property to a purchaser in the colonies. Consequently the slavery of those that were brought into the colonies after the statute of 1750, was equally illegal with that of those who had been brought in before. fn8 [*26]
The conclusion of the whole matter is, that until some reason appears against them, we are bound by the decision of the King's [*27] Bench in 1772, and the colonial charters. That decision declared that there was, at that time, in England, no right of property in [*28] man, (notwithstanding the English government had for a long time connived at the slave trade.) ‑‑ The colonial charters required [*29] the legislation of the colonies to be "consonant to reason, and not repugnant or contrary, but conformable, or agreeable, as nearly as [*30] circumstances would allow, to the laws, statutes and rights of the realm of England." That decision, then, if correct, settled the [*31] law both for England and the colonies. And if so, there was no constitutional slavery in the colonies up to the time of the revolution. [*32]