Alienable Rights is a daunting, powerful narrative of slavery and racism in America. The authors posit that "the drive for African-American equality has never had the support of the majority of Americans." They argue that despite statements and sentiments of political leaders and the devastation of the Civil War, racial progress was only attained through the commitment of a "militant minority" of abolitionists and civil rights advocates, and that each advance has been met by a backlash of those committed to restoring white privilege.
As is the case in John Leland's Hip: The History (albeit with a dramatically different focus and purpose), the authors here address the very substantive differences in American slavery when contrasted with the rest of the world; indeed, they ponder how slavery became "so firmly entrenched in the colonies, when it appears never to have received the approval of English law?" The basis for this contention is that in 1772, prior to the Revolutionary War, the chief justice of the King's Bench adjudicated the case of James Somersett, an African slave who had been brought to England from Virginia by his master.
Somersett had run away but had been recaptured, taken aboard ship, and held there against his will. Demanding his client's freedom, Somersett's lawyer petitioned Mansfield for a writ of habeas corpus, which the chief justice reluctantly issued, affirming that Somersett could not be held, because "as soon as any slave sets foot upon English territory, he becomes free." Mansfield's decision, which resulted in the uncompensated emancipation of as many as fourteen thousand blacks resulting in Britain, not only made it clear that slaves automatically gained their freedom the instant they arrived on English soil, it also asserted an even more fundamental principle: that slavery could have no legal standing in a society unless "positive law" existed that provided it with an unequivocal legislative mandate. Slavery was so odious, Mansfield maintained, that its legality could not be based on mere custom or usage. Anything short of statutory action, which had the power to preserve slavery's mandate long after the "reasons, occasion, and time ... from which it was created . . . were erased from memory," was insufficient to give it legitimacy.
The basic point, according to authors Adams and Sanders, is this: the Somerset decision meant that "no English precedent had been established to justify slavery in Britain's colonies," even though over the course of the preceding 150 years the American colonies at least had developed an elaborate and extensive legal code around the bondage of other human beings.