Go to the U of M home page


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Granville Sharp, Early Champion of Abolitionism

Magna Charta cum statutis (London: Richard
Tottell, 1556)
One of the Law Library's most prized copies of Magna Carta was once owned by Granville Sharp (1735-1813), a founder of the abolitionist movement. At the top of the title page of one of our 16th-century Magna Cartas can be seen "Ex libris, Granville Sharp, 1760." Apparently acquired by Sharp when he was twenty-five, the volume may have had an important influence on him. Largely an autodidact, Sharp taught himself Hebrew and Greek and joined in learned theological disputes with Oxford dons. He is still known today for "Sharp's Rule," a principle of Biblical translation. He also developed a considerable knowledge of English law despite never training as an attorney.

Sharp's involvement with abolitionism developed through his brother, a physician, who treated the slave Jonathan Strong in London after he had been badly abused. Sharp sought the man's release in court, and later published the first significant anti-slavery tract in England, A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery (1769). He was also a motive force behind the famous Somersett case (1772), in which Chief Justice Mansfield ruled that James Somersett could not be sent back into colonial slavery from English soil. In the same period, Sharp corresponded with American abolitionists, including Anthony Benezet, and stirred a young movement. Sharp's keen and well-researched interest in the legal dimensions of English liberty—which may trace to his reading of our copy of Magna Carta—established part of his commitment to freedom and human rights.  
Sharp's underlining at clause 29 of
Magna Carta.

Sharp underlined and annotated his copy of Magna Carta at important passages. Notably he underlined Magna Carta's famous clause 29 (from the 1225 Magna Carta), which we take as a basis of due process: "No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or disseized of his free tenement or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go against such a man or send against him save by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell or deny or delay right or justice." Sharp considered these key provisions of Magna Carta as natural and inalienable rights.

Sharp eventually authored more than sixty works on topics ranging from anti-slavery, the divinity of Christ, and even the right of the American colonists to take part in the English legislature, the latter another issue linked to rights set out in Magna Carta.

   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.