William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield ~ Judge and Politician

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield: (March 2, 1705 – March 20, 1793), was a British judge and politician who reached high office in the House of Lords.

He was born at Scone a younger son of David Murray, 4th Viscount of Stormont (c.1665-1731), a member of a Jacobite family. William Murray was educated at Perth Grammar school and Westminster School, of which he was a King’s Scholar. Entering Christ Church, Oxford, he graduated in 1727. A friend of the family, Thomas Foley, 1st Baron Foley, provided the funds for his legal training, and he became a member of Lincoln’s Inn on his departure from Oxford, being called to the bar in 1730. He was a good scholar and mixed with the best literary society, being an intimate friend of Alexander Pope. His appearance in some important Scottish appeal cases brought him into notice, and in Scotland at least he acquired an immense reputation by his appearance for the city of Edinburgh when it was threatened with disfranchisement for the affair of the Porteous mob. His English practice had as yet been scanty, but in 1737 a single speech in a jury trial of note placed him at the head of the bar, and from this time he had all he could attend to. In 1738 he married Lady Elizabeth Finch, daughter of the Daniel Finch, 7th Earl of Winchilsea.

His political career began in 1742 with his appointment as Solicitor-General. During the next fourteen years he was one of the most conspicuous figures in the parliamentary history of the time. By birth a Jacobite, by association a Tory, he was nevertheless a Moderate, and his politics were really dominated by his legal interests. Although holding an office of subordinate rank, he was the chief defender of the government in the House of Commons, and during the time that William Pitt the Elder was in opposition had to bear the brunt of his attacks. In 1754 he became Attorney-General, and for the next two years acted as Leader of the House of Commons under the administration of Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle. But in 1756, when the government was evidently approaching its fall, an unexpected vacancy occurred in the chief justiceship of the king’s bench, and he claimed the office, being at the same time raised to the peerage as Baron Mansfield.

In 1754 he also purchased Kenwood House where he had extensive modifications made by Robert Adam. After his Bloomsbury house was burned in the Gordon Riots in 1780 he lived exclusively at Kenwood.

From this time the chief interest of his career lies in his judicial work, but he did not wholly dissever himself from politics. He became by a singular arrangement, only repeated in the case of Lord Ellenborough, a member of the cabinet, and remained in that position through various changes of administration for nearly fifteen years, and, although he persistently refused the chancellorship, he acted as Speaker of the House of Lords while the Great Seal was in commission. During the time of William Pitt the Younger’s ascendancy he took but little part in politics, but while Lord Bute was in power his influence was very considerable, and seems mostly to have been exerted in favour of a more moderate line of policy. He was on the whole a supporter of the prerogative, but within definite limits. Macaulay terms him, justly enough, “the father of modern Toryism, of Toryism modified to suit an order of things in which the House of Commons is the most powerful body in the state.”

During the stormy session of 1770 he came into violent collision, with Pitt the Elder and Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden in the questions that arose out of the Middlesex election and the trials for political libel; and in the subsequent years he was made the subject of the bitter attacks of Junius, in which his early Jacobite connexions, and his apparent leanings to arbitrary power, were used against him with extraordinary ability and virulence. In 1776 he was created Earl of Mansfield. In 1783, although he declined to re-enter the cabinet, he continued to act as chief justice until his resignation in June 1788 as Speaker of the House of Lords during the coalition ministry, and with this his political career may be said to have closed and after five years spent in retirement died on Murra 20 March 1793. He left no family, but his title had been re-granted in 1792 on direct remainder to his nephew David Murray, 7th Viscount Stormont. (1727-1796).

Lord Mansfield’s great reputation rests chiefly on his judicial career. Lord Mansfield played a role in ending slavery in England. James Somerset, a slave brought to England by his master, a Mr Stewart of Virginia, brought suit against him on 14 May 1772. Lord Mansfield rendered his verdict in favor of Somerset on 22 June 1772.

“On the part of Somerset, the case which we gave notice should be decided, this day, the Court now proceeds to give its opinion. The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

Mansfield concluded that there was no legal backing for slavery in England. Furthermore, the Somerset case is the origin of the following words about English common law (although Mansfield himself never said them) — words that have been memorized by British pupils ever since.

“The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe, and so everyone who breathes it becomes free. Everyone who comes to this island is entitled to the protection of English law, whatever oppression he may have suffered and whatever may be the colour of his skin.”

This ruling applied only to England, and not the rest of the British Empire, and British commerce in slaves continued for thirty-five years until 1807, when Parliament formally abolished the slave trade. From Lord Mansfield’s ruling in this case comes also the famous quote, “Let Justice be done, though the Heavens may fall.”

Since the ruling did not apply to British colonies, slavery remained in the future United States. However, the decision was used by American abolitionists to justify personal liberty laws, and was overturned in the United States by 1843 Supreme Court decision of Prigg v. Pennsylvania.

Mansfield’s nephew had a daughter, Dido Elizabeth Belle whose mother was a slave, and Dido lived with Mansfield at Kenwood house. He was careful to confirm her freedom from slavery in his will in which he left her £100 a year

He is the subject of studies by Holliday (1797) and Fifoot (1936).