Mark S. Weiner

Sharp’s Numbers

In Aesthetics, narrative, form, Books and libraries, Conversations, Race, Video on June 28, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Book cornerYesterday afternoon, I opened an important old book and was carried back over ten years of memory.

When I say old, I mean the book was printed in 1772. The book is important because it was critical to the development of the modern anti-slavery movement.

I’m in the midst of preparing a series of videos that will tell the story of the legal systems of the world through the story of their books and manuscripts. Right now, I’m working on a video about Blackstone’s Commentaries, the great eighteenth-century survey of the English common law. So I went to visit Mike Widener, Rare Book Librarian at Yale Law School, which has the best collection of Blackstone anywhere.

As Mike and I were talking about Blackstone, he also showed me some treasures from his recent headline-making acquisition from the library of British barrister Anthony Taussig. One of them caught me off guard.

Book open on table

Title Page

Here’s how Mike introduced the Taussig collection—and the book:

I had written about Somerset’s Case twelve years ago, after seeking what traces I could find of the life of James Somerset, the slave at issue in the litigation. In 2004, I discussed his story in my first book, Black Trials. Naturally, I couldn’t resist peaking into Sharp’s copy of Francis Hagrave’s argument in favor of a conception of liberty we now take for granted.

I first looked at his familiar hand on one of the book’s early leafs:

Inside notes

I saw this fragmentary reference to the cat o’ nine tails (I can’t decipher the first line):

Three cords

Three cords close up

And then I turned to Sharp’s marginalia—traces of his reading mind that are moving in their brevity (the word here is “manumission”):


Summary of the law

State in America

One of the things that struck me most about the notes is how often they were simply dates. In Sharp’s concern for liberty, his mind was deeply historical.



Date 3

There was something incredibly moving to me about this. So I began to record the numbers up close.




1540 1

1540 2


1615 1625


1716 1738

1618 their

After the conquest

As I was beginning tire, something caught my eye.

In his argument before the Court of King’s Bench—1772—Hargrave cited the first volume of the first edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries—1765: the very book I had come to the library to examine. When he cited Blackstone, Hargrave was in the midst of conceding that the great jurists Grotius and Puffendorf indicated that slavery could be lawfully entered by contract. On this, Blackstone cast doubt.

The telling reference is in note n.

Paragraph with note

Note n

Of course, we had to open the first edition of the Commentaries to page 412.

Mike Widener with Blackstone 1st edition

It was part of the chapter “Of Master and Servant.”

Master and Servant

Here is the start of the passage to which Hargrave seems to be referring:

Blackstone quotation

And here is how it concludes:

“Of what validity then can a sale be which destroys the very principles upon which all sales are founded?”

Books are beautiful things.

Mike Widener in Office

Sharp's check mark

Update 1/16/14: Mike Widener posted this discussion of books in the Taussig Collection owned or authored by Granville Sharp to the Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Library blog.

  1. The published version of Hargrave’s argument is apparently a greatly expanded version, meant for publication, of his oral arguments before Mansfield and the Court of King’s Bench. It is, nevertheless, the most comprehensive statement of the arguments in favor of the abolition of slavery second only to Sharp’s own “A representation of the Injustice of Slavery . . . .” published in 1769 by B. White. Also, I am sure you are aware that Blackstone’s statements on slavery went through a number of iterations as he published new editions of the Commentaries and some historians speculate that Blackstone’s change of position was influenced by Mansfield, although I have never found any evidence to support the speculation. Sharp and Hargrave engaged in correspondence before Hargrave was brought onto the team of lawyers who represented Somerset. And Sharp engaged in correspondence with Blackstone on the question of slavery. You are most welcome to the chapters in my dissertation which discuss the Somerset case, Sharp’s role in organizing Somerset’s defense team and the communications between Sharp and Blackstone.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Dr. Conforti–it’s great to be in touch with another historian interested in Somerset’s Case. I wrote about the case many years ago: a chapter in my first book, Black Trials, and this essay: It’s been a long time since I’ve been familiar with the materials. Where can I find your dissertation? Thanks again! Cheers, Mark Weiner


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