Ward's Book of Days.

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MARCH 20th

On this day in history in 1793, died William Murray.

Murray was a Scottish lawyer who rewrote the commercial law of England, and declared slavery to be illegal in Britain.

William Murray was born on 2nd March 1705, at Scone, Perthshire, a younger son of the 5th Viscount Stormont. He was educated at Perth Grammar School, Westminster School, and Christ Church, Oxford, and was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1730.

In 1736, he made his mark in legal practice, when he defended the city of Edinburgh when it was threatened with disfranchisement after the assassination of John Porteous, the captain of the city guard. In 1737, he headed a merchants' petition to stop Spanish assaults on British ships, and so roused the House of Commons, that in 1739, anti-Spanish sentiment brought about the War of Jenkins' Ear. In 1742 he was appointed solicitor general, and in 1754, became attorney general and acted as leader of the House of Commons. In 1756 he was appointed chief justice of the King's Bench, and was made Baron Mansfield.

Murray found that the state of the corpus of commercial law in England was deplorable. The common law was wholly inadequate to cope with the new cases, which arose with the increasing development of commerce. Case facts were left to juries, with no precedents recorded to serve as guides in subsequent cases. Murray set out to define the principles that governed commercial transactions, so that judges could apply the rules he had laid down. His knowledge of Roman law enabled him to codify existing rules, together with new precedents, and revitalise the common law to enable it to cope with the commercial boom that was sweeping Britain. Although he was often accused of corrupting the basic tenets of English Law, he became recognized as the founder of English mercantile law, as we now know it.

Murray was a keen supporter of the rights of conscience, and in 1780, he defended a Catholic priest, who was accused of saying Mass, contrary to the penal laws of the time. His actions provoked a public riot and his house in Bloomsbury was burned to the ground by a rebellious mob. He conducted the trial of the leader of the mob, George Gordon, and was so scrupulously fair that Gordon was acquitted.

Murray played a part in the abolition of slavery, by his judgment in Somersett's Case. James Somersett was a slave brought to London by his master, a Virginia planter. Somersett presented a suit demanding his freedom, and Murray laid down his famous verdict, stating that slavery was illegal in Britain. He declared that ‘The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it.’ The ruling applied only to Britain, and not to the colonies, and British slave traffic continued until 1807, when Parliament finally abolished the slave trade.

William Murray, Lord Mansfield, died on 20th March 1793, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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