Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Rise/Fall Slavery Massachusetts

Massachusetts was the first British colony to legalize slavery. The year 1641 saw the passing of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. This set of 98 rules established rules of law governing how men, women, children and servants had essential rights. Rule 91 stated that there shall never be slavery, serfdom or captivity "... unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us."

And there it was: strangers sold to us could be owned as slaves. And de facto, their children.

Prior to 1641 there had been a handful of slaves owned by colonists. The real impetus for this part of the Body of Liberties was wars with Native Americans. The colonists did not want to free their captives from these wars - men, women and children - but could not decide what to do with them. The decision was reached to sell them into slavery in the Caribbean colonies. Returning ships started bring back a few Negro slaves as cargo.

Slavery never took hold in the northern colonies as it did in the southern colonies mostly because there were no labor intensive cash crops - no tobacco, no indigo and no rice. (Cotton as a slave crop developed only after invention of the cotton gin in 1793.) Instead, northern slaves were primarily prestige property for the upper class, especially for educated men who did not intend to have themselves or their wives do much physical labor about home and farm. 

These ministers, lawyers, doctors, judges and military officers typically owned one to three slaves. Increase Mather, President of Harvard College, owned slaves, as did his son, Cotton Mather, author of Rules for the Society of Negroes (1693) and The Negro Christianized (1706).  

By the numbers: 550 adult slaves in Massachusetts by 1708 grew to 2,720 in the town-by-town slave census conducted in 1754. This was a bit more than one percent of the total population, but heavily skewed toward higher percentages in Boston and coastal cities. Boston was ten percent Negro in 1754 (counting slave and free). In that same census year Concord was  recorded as having 15 adult slaves age 16 or older, Sudbury 14, Acton 1 and Stow none. Maynard did not yet exist as a separate town.

[Sudbury and Stow: The Wayside Inn acknowledges that the Howe family owned at least two slaves - Portsmouth and an unnamed Negro Girl - during the decade before the Revolutionary War. Surnames of slave-owning families in Sudbury include Baldwin, Benson, Howe, Loring, Noyes, Parris, Read, Richardson, Roby and Wood. Stow historical records acknowledge at least two slave owning families. It is not known is any of these households were in the northern part of Sudbury or the southeastern part of Stow that later became Maynard.]    

The end of slavery in Massachusetts was hastened by the Revolutionary War. Many Loyalists fled to British-controlled territory, often abandoning their slaves. To disrupt the colonial efforts against them the British Army publicized that it would free slaves. The Continental Army under the command of George Washington (slave owner), initially opposed enrolling any Negro men, but soon changed this edict. Free Negros were allowed to enroll, and slave owners received a cash compensation for any slave freed to then serve in the Army for a set period of time.

Massachusetts was the first of the newly forming states to end slavery. With the War still raging on, Massachusetts passed a state constitution in 1780. Key wording: "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness."

The State legislature may not have intended this to mean the end of slavery; draft versions proposed in 1777 and 1778 had been clear that slavery would continue. But the 1780 wording was what became law. Within a few years court cases were brought on behalf of people who claimed they could no longer be owned.

A key decision in 1783 by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts came down against slave ownership. In 1788 the State passed a law prohibiting the buying, selling or transporting of Africans as slaves, and to make illegal the transport of any people from Massachusetts to sell as slaves elsewhere.

For anyone intending to research this topic on their own, I recommend: Website created by Douglas Harper, Lancaster, PA.
Massachusetts Body of Liberties. 1641. Copied from:
The Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review and Slavery. Copied from:
Cotton Mather. Rules for the Society of Negroes. 1693. Copied from:;view=fulltext
Cotton Mather. The Negro Christianized. An Essay to Excite and Assist that Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity (1706). Copied from:
Elise Lemire. Black Walden, Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts. 2009.
Sven Beckert and Katherine Stevens. Harvard and Slavery. 2011.  Copied from:
Lucie Caroline Hager. BOXBOROUGH: A New England Town and Its People. 1891.
1754 Massachusetts Slave Census. [Download at lower left of screen accessed the 26 MB document.]

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