Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery

by Steven M. Wise

Published by Da Capo

282 pages, 2006




Heaven Held

Reviewed by Monica Stark


The very best of non-fiction can be a simultaneously joyous and troublesome journey. Such, at any rate, is certainly the case with Though the Heavens May Fall, one of those books that makes you realize that there is too much in the world that should be known but, largely, is not.

Author Steven M. Wise's non-fiction bibliography is relatively short, but vastly impressive. When he brought us Rattling the Cage in 2000, he made us think carefully about the voice of those who can not speak. Likewise, 2002's Drawing the Line extended the voice for the voiceless still further, asking -- quite literally -- about animal rights in terms of what, if any, non-human animals actually -- and legally -- have in our society.

Wise is a rare creature: a respected lawyer -- and professor of law -- who writes on non-legal matters in a clear and passionate way. More: he writes on topics that matter; that make a difference. And he does both in a way that is convincing and moving. Though perhaps saying his books are on "non-legal matters" is drawing too fine a point. None of them are about the law, per se, but all of them are touched -- and more than touched -- by the systems of laws and courts that bind those of us who live in the western world.

The topics Wise has chosen are deeply interesting, but he has the touch when it comes to doing heavy research on a topic, then gifting it to us as a lucid, complete whole. Wise has a knack for breaking down to its simplest elements topics from which other writers would create quagmires. For instance, the first line in Wise's book -- from the preface -- explains Though the Heavens May Fall most concisely:

This book tells how an invisible man became visible and how that changed the world.

Though the Heavens May Fall brings to light the trial whose outcome became known alternately as the Somerset Decision and the Mansfield Judgment. This was the British trial that, in 1772, had the end result of liberating 15,000 slaves in England by legal precedent. Viewed in certain lights, the decision set the stage for further emancipations over the century that would follow.

In Though the Heavens May Fall Wise looks not only at the players here but also at the financial and political ramifications of the decision. And those would have been huge. Like slamming a bill through congress in 2006, the decision would affect aspects of life in London -- and other parts of England proper -- in ways that no one could have predicted.

James Somerset was enslaved as a child of eight in Africa. He was "part," writes Wise, "of a third wave of British unfree." In 1768, Somerset traveled to London with his owner, a Scot with holdings in America. Once in England, Somerset escaped and was recaptured 56 days later. On orders of his owner, Somerset was "shackled and thrown onto the Ann and Mary, anchored in the Thames and ready to sail for Jamaica and the slave markets into which its captain ... was to sell him."

However, before the Ann and Mary could set sail, "three Londoners applied to Lord Mansfield for a writ of habeas corpus" which ordered the captain of the ship to produce Somerset in Mansfield's chambers. It was a seemingly small step that would have huge repercussions for the institution of slavery as it was then understood in England.

Much ink is naturally given to Lord Mansfield, the conservative judge who presided over the proceedings and played such a large part in its outcome. Interestingly, Mansfield had a grand-niece on whom he doted who was the progeny of Mansfield's nephew, Sir John Lindsey, and a woman of color Lindsey had taken as prisoner aboard a Spanish ship. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in England and raised alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Mansfield, who was childless, "took pains to ensure that no one could ever claim Dido a slave."

1772 is so long ago: long enough, in any case, that many details are difficult to verify. In fact, there are no fewer than eight different versions of the Mansfield Judgment floating around out there. "The legend of the Mansfield Judgment has a Rashomon-like quality," writes Wise. And, without Court TV, the Internet or photocopiers and fax machines, there seems no way we'll ever be sure precisely what the Mansfield Judgment decreed, but the bottom line was not debatable. Slavery, "is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law." Another Mansfield quote gives the book its title and beautifully, I think, caps this review: "Let Justice be done, though the Heavens may fall." | February 2006


Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.