Research Programs: Fellowships for University Teachers

Period of Performance

8/1/2016 - 7/31/2017

Funding Totals

$50,400.00 (approved)
$50,400.00 (awarded)

Habeas Corpus, Human Rights, and the Novel in the 18th and 19th Centuries

FAIN: FA-233104-16

Sarah Winter
University of Connecticut (Storrs, CT 06269-9000)

A book-length study on the development of habeas corpus and the idea of human rights in 18th- and 19th-century novels.

When James Somerset fled his master in 1771, two years after their arrival in London, the judge ruled that the former slave could not be detained and shipped back into slavery. Chief Justice of King's Bench, Lord Mansfield also granted the writ of habeas corpus used by Somerset's protectors to rescue him from detention so that he could appear before the court. British abolitionists praised Mansfield for ruling "in behalf of humanity" and recognizing slaves' "injured human rights." Beginning with the Ex parte Somerset case of 1772, my book project explores the nexus of habeas corpus jurisprudence, human rights, and the novel between 1760 and 1870. Bridging British literary history and legal history, my book delineates a popular habeas corpus narrative in which fugitive slaves and political prisoners embodied the abstract bearer of human rights. My study offers a new account of the way human rights were envisioned by means of habeas corpus as a judicial remedy for unlawful detention.

Media Coverage

"A Judgment on Behalf of Humanity" (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Christine Buckley
Publication: UConn Today
Date: 3/28/2016
Abstract: An article written by a staff member of the University of Connecticut College of Libaral Arts and Sciences describing Sarah Winter's 2016 NEH Faculty Fellowship project.

Sarah Winter Receives NEH Fellowship for Project on Habeas Corpus and Human Rights (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Johanna Debari
Publication: UConn Human Rights Institute Blog
Date: 4/27/2016
Abstract: A blog posting describing Sarah Winter's NEH University Faculty Fellowship grant project.

Associated Products

“From procedural law to the ‘rights of humanity’: Habeas corpus, Ex parte Somerset (1771-72), and the movement toward collective representation in early British antislavery cases” (Book Section)
Title: “From procedural law to the ‘rights of humanity’: Habeas corpus, Ex parte Somerset (1771-72), and the movement toward collective representation in early British antislavery cases”
Author: Sarah Winter
Editor: Edward Cavanagh
Abstract: This chapter traces the development of early British abolitionist proceduralism in contestation against colonial slave laws by studying legal cases pursued by Granville Sharp and abolitionist lawyers between 1767 and 1774 involving fugitive slaves in England who had been recaptured by their enslavers, including the famous Ex parte Somerset decision of 1772. Pursuing charges of assault against the kidnappers, lawyers also frequently had recourse to the legal process of the writ of habeas corpus ad subjiciendum et recipiendum, which enabled courts to adjudicate the legality of an individual’s detention and to free those unlawfully detained. While historians of law and the British empire have frequently viewed the verdict in Somerset as, at best, confirming English law’s ignorance of slavery, such emphasis on legal exceptionalism does not reveal the generalizing remedial capacities of the ruling in an imperial context. Drawing upon Paul D. Halliday’s demonstration of the strong remedial and imperial jurisdiction of King’s Bench in the eighteenth century, the chapter shows how the entitlement of the slave’s vulnerable human body to protection by the common law emerged through abolitionist proceduralism, which framed habeas corpus as a representative legal action. These cases promulgated new definitions of collective ‘rights of humanity’ that would not be restricted to slavery alone, but could apply to violated rights of all oppressed persons across the Empire. Concluding with an analysis of two contemporaneous cases where representative habeas corpus actions failed in respect to a deported slave and insolvent debtors, the chapter reveals that collective ‘rights of humanity’ based in the natural rights of the individual to personal liberty and bodily integrity could only come into question indirectly in the legal arena when the habeas corpus procedure itself was functioning correctly within a powerful imperial jurisdiction.
Year: 2020
Primary URL:,the%20development%20of%20legal%20thought.&text=It%20withstands%20the%20rise%20and,the%20place%20of%20the%20old.
Secondary URL:
Access Model: book and electronic publication
Publisher: Brill
Book Title: Empire and Legal Thought: Ideas and Institutions from Antiquity to Modernity
ISBN: 978-90-04-4309

“Remedial Fictions: The Novelization of Habeas Corpus and the History of Human Rights” (Book Section)
Title: “Remedial Fictions: The Novelization of Habeas Corpus and the History of Human Rights”
Author: Sarah Winter
Editor: Hans Lind
Abstract: What kind of cultural and political leverage can legal fictions or personifications exert when they appear in fictional narratives? Perhaps no form of legal personhood has played a greater role in political crises than the “corpus” summoned by the writ of habeas corpus. This chapter examines how the habeas corpus judicial process produces a particular sort of legal personification, the corpus, combining an individual human body with a form of legal personhood. Focusing on the famous Ex parte Somerset decision of 1772 in juxtaposition to William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams (1794), it shows that a remedial judicial process such as habeas corpus— - and its fictionalization by novelists— - provides a new vantage on the history of human rights, particularly in respect to the protection of dissidents, the enslaved, or the disenfranchised from private or governmental coercion.
Year: 2020
Primary URL:
Secondary URL: htt
Access Model: print and e-publication
Publisher: Routledge
Book Title: Fictional Discourse and the Law
ISBN: 978-1138604759