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History of slavery in Massachusetts

Massachusetts was the first colony in New England with slave ownership and was a center for the slave trade throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The practice of slavery was ended through case law; and as an institution it died out in the late 18th century through judicial actions litigated on behalf of slaves seeking manumission. Following England's lead, Lawyer Benjamin Kent represented slaves in court against their masters as early as 1752. He won the first case to liberate a slave in the United States in 1766. [1][2][3] [4][5][6][7] The post-revolutionary court cases, starting in 1781, heard arguments contending that slavery was a violation of Christian principles and also a violation of the constitution of the commonwealth. 1783 saw additional high-profile court cases that began a general trend of slaves winning their emancipation on a case-by-case basis through lawsuit. As slavery dwindled in the last decade of the 18th century in Massachusetts, many of the instances where it remained, the slaveholders sometimes applied semantics of a name change to indentured servitude to maintain their property. The 1790 federal census, however, listed no slaves. Massachusetts was a center for the abolition movement in the 19th century. Legislation was passed that abolished slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 was ratified by the state.


17th centuryEdit

The exact date of the first African slaves in Massachusetts is unknown, but may have been as early as 1624 by a man named Samuel Maverick. The first confirmed account of slavery in the colony is in 1638, when several Native Americans captured during the Pequot War were exchanged in the West Indies for African slaves. Such exchanges become common in subsequent Massachusetts Indian wars.[8]

Most of the 17th century slave trade in New England was based in Massachusetts; however, direct attempts were not successful until the latter half of the century. In 1676, Boston ships began working with slave traders in Madagascar and by 1678 were selling slaves to Virginians. As to slaves imported to Massachusetts, the traders preferred to exchange new arrivals from Africa for more experienced slaves in the West Indies. Some Africans considered unsuitable for work in the West Indies were also brought to Massachusetts and sold. Boston ships were selling slaves to Connecticut by 1680 and Rhode Island by 1696.[9]

Law 1641-1703Edit

In 1641, Massachusetts passed its Body of Liberties which gave legal sanction to certain kinds of slavery.[10]

There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or captivitie amongst us unless it be lawfull captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by Authoritie.[11]

Wiecek notes that the reference to "strangers" is derived from Leviticus 25: 39–55 and explains that they could be ruled and sold as slaves.[10][12] For the Puritans and citizens of the colony, "strangers" would eventually mean Native Americans and Africans.[10] Even though the Body of Liberties excluded many forms of slavery, it did recognize four legitimate bases of slavery.[10] Slaves could legally be obtained if they were captives resulting from war, sold themselves into slavery, were purchased as slaves from elsewhere, or were sentenced to slavery through the governing authority.[13] This made Massachusetts the first colony to authorize slavery through legislation.[13] In 1670, Massachusetts made it legal for the children of slaves to be sold into bondage.[14] By 1680, the colony had laws restricting the movements of blacks.[14] A 1703 law required owners to post a bond for all slaves to protect towns in the case that a slave became indigent should the master refuse to continue caring for him or her.[9]

18th centuryEdit

The slave population in Massachusetts was under 200 in 1676, 550 in 1708 and 2,000 by 1715. Slaves accounted for 2.2% of the total population from 1755 to 1764, their highest rate. There was a larger free black population, with about 10% of the population of Boston being black in 1752.[9]

By the mid-18th century, the enslavement of Africans had become a common practice in Massachusetts.[15] A 1754 census listed nearly 4500 slaves in the colony.[16] However, Abolitionist sentiment was growing, especially when the philosophical underpinnings of independence and democracy became commonly discussed in the colony. While Massachusetts did derive wealth from the Triangle Trade, its merchant and mixed economy was never as dependent on slave labor to the extent of the southern colonies. Within the British Empire, the Massachusetts courts began to follow England when, in 1772, England became the first country in the world to outlaw the slave trade within its borders (see Somerset v Stewart) followed by the Knight v. Wedderburn decision in Scotland in 1778.

Freedom suitsEdit

Between 1764 and 1774, seventeen slaves appeared in Massachusetts courts to sue their owners for freedom.[17] In 1766, John Adams' colleague Benjamin Kent won the first trial in the United States (and Massachusetts) to free a slave (Slew vs. Whipple). [18][19] [20][21][22][23] There were three other trials that are noteworthy, two civil and one criminal. All three took place during the American Revolutionary War, when thoughts about the equality of all people were frequently voiced, and especially after the new Massachusetts constitution was passed in 1780. The civil cases were Jennison v. Caldwell (for "deprivation of the benefit of his servant, Walker"), apparently heard and decided first, and Quock Walker v. Jennison (for assault and battery),[24] both heard by the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas on June 12, 1781.

Jennison v. Caldwell

A man named Jennison argued that one Caldwell had enticed away his employee Walker. The court found in his favor and awarded Jennison 25 pounds compensation.

Chief Justice William Cushing
Quock Walker v. Jennison

This 1781 case involved a slave named Quock Walker in Worcester County Court of Common Pleas. Chief Justice William Cushing instructed the jury:

As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle, that (it is true) has been heretofore countenanced by the Province Laws formerly, but nowhere is it expressly enacted or established. It has been a usage – a usage which took its origin from the practice of some of the European nations, and the regulations of British government respecting the then Colonies, for the benefit of trade and wealth. But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses-features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal – and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property – and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature, unless his liberty is forfeited by some criminal conduct or given up by personal consent or contract ... [25]

The Walker case had been opened by the attorney to consider whether a previous master's promise to free Walker gave him a right to freedom after that master had died. Walker's lawyers argued that the concept of slavery was contrary to the Bible and the new Massachusetts Constitution (1780). The jury decided that Walker was a free man under the constitution and awarded him 50 pounds in damages.

Both decisions were appealed. Jennison's appeal of Walker's freedom was rejected in September 1781 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, either because he failed to appear[26] or because his lawyers did not submit the required court papers.[24][27] The Caldwells won the other appeal; a jury concurred that Walker was a free man, and therefore the defendants were entitled to employ him.

Commonwealth v. Jennison

In September 1781, a third case was filed by the Attorney General against Jennison, Commonwealth v. Jennison, for criminal assault and battery of Walker. In his charge to the jury, Chief Justice William Cushing stated, "Without resorting to implication in constructing the constitution, slavery is ... as effectively abolished as it can be by the granting of rights and privileges wholly incompatible and repugnant to its existence." This has been taken as setting the groundwork for the end of slavery in the state.[27][28] On April 20, 1783, Jennison was found guilty and fined 40 shillings.[24]

Aftermath of the trials

While Chief Justice Cushing's opinion in effect should have ended slavery in Massachusetts, the state never formally abolished slavery until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. Some possible reasons for this are that state legislators were either unable or unwilling to address slave-owners' concerns about losing their financial "investment", and non-slave owning white citizens' concerns that if slavery were abolished, the freed slaves could become a burden on the community. Some even feared that escaped slaves from other states would flood Massachusetts.[29]

The Massachusetts Supreme Court decisions in Walker v. Jennison and Commonwealth v. Jennison established the basis for ending slavery in Massachusetts on constitutional grounds, but no law or amendment to the state constitution was passed. Instead slavery gradually ended "voluntarily" in the state over the next decade. The decisions in the Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker trials had removed its legal support and slavery was said to end by erosion. Some masters manumitted their slaves formally and arranged to pay them wages for continued labor. Other slaves were "freed" but were restricted as indentured servants for extended periods.[15] By 1790, the federal census recorded no slaves in the state.[30]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston By Jared Ross Hardesty, p. 143
  2. ^ Adams’ Minutes of the Argument: Essex Superior Court, Salem, November 1766
  3. ^ [ Jenny Slew: The first enslaved person to win her freedom via jury trial Meserette Kentake January 29, 2016]
  4. ^ Thursday Open Thread: Little Known Slave Court Cases NOVEMBER 9, 2017 BY MIRANDA
  5. ^ Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 2
  6. ^ Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England By Catherine Adams, Elizabeth H. Pleck
  7. ^ The Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society, Volume 40, 1964-1966
  8. ^ McManus, Edgar J. Black Bondage in the North. p. 6.
  9. ^ a b c Harper, Douglass. "Slavery in Massachusetts". Slavery in the North. Retrieved 2007-06-10.
  10. ^ a b c d William M. Wiecek (1977). "the Statutory Law of Slavery and Race in the Thirteen Mainland Colonies of British America". 34 (2). The William and Mary Quarterly: 261. JSTOR 1925316. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Farrand Max (2002). "The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts". Harvard University Press. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ Nagl, Dominik (2013). 'The Governmentality of Slavery in Colonial Boston, 1690–1760' in American Studies, 58.1, pp. 5–26. [1]
  13. ^ a b Higginbotham, A. Leon (1975). In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. Greenwood Press.
  14. ^ a b
  15. ^ a b Piper, Emilie; Levinson, David (2010). One Minute a Free Woman: Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom. Salisbury, CT: Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area. ISBN 978-0-9845492-0-7.
  16. ^ Moore, George H. (1866). Notes on the history of slavery in Massachusetts. NY NY: D. Appleton & Co. p. 51. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
  17. ^ p. 34
  18. ^ Adams’ Minutes of the Argument: Essex Superior Court, Salem, November 1766
  19. ^ [ Jenny Slew: The first enslaved person to win her freedom via jury trial Meserette Kentake January 29, 2016]
  20. ^ Thursday Open Thread: Little Known Slave Court Cases NOVEMBER 9, 2017 BY MIRANDA
  21. ^ Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 2
  22. ^ Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England By Catherine Adams, Elizabeth H. Pleck
  23. ^ The Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society, Volume 40, 1964-1966
  24. ^ a b c Teddi Di Canio. "The Quock Walker Trials: 1781–83 – Suggestions For Further Reading". Law Library ( Retrieved October 4, 2009.
  25. ^ Harper, Douglass. Emancipation in Massachusetts Archived 2004-01-28 at the Wayback Machine Slavery in the North. Retrieved 2010-05-22
  26. ^ "Quock Walker". Massachusetts Historical Society ( Retrieved October 4, 2009.
  27. ^ a b "Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review, and Slavery – The Quock Walker Case". Retrieved November 10, 2010.
  28. ^ Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 114
  29. ^ Rose, Ben Z. (2009). Mother of Freedom: Mum Bett and the Roots of Abolition. Waverly, Massachusetts: Treeline Press. ISBN 978-0-9789123-1-4.
  30. ^ Moore, George H. (1866). Notes on the history of slavery in Massachusetts. NY NY: D. Appleton & Co. p. 247. Retrieved July 26, 2010.