By Cliff Odle
By the end of the Revolutionary war, slavery was commonplace in colonial Massachusetts. Many prominent citizens, such as merchant and Son of Liberty John Hancock, owned slaves. In addition to working the fields, blacksmith shops, stables, and docks of the colony, many slaves were used status symbols for households who wished to show off their wealth.
While slavery was common throughout the colonies, moral acceptance of the trade was not universal. As early as 1700, Samuel Sewall, a Puritan judge who was involved in prosecuting the Salem Witch Trials, wrote what is considered the first piece of anti-slavery literature, an essay called "The Selling of Joseph." In addition, a few "founding fathers" found the conscience to speak out against slavery. In 1764, James Otis declared : "Colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black." Another patriot and firebrand, Sam Adams, said that "no slave shall live under my roof," and freed the two he inherited from marrying his second wife.
Circumstances of weather and law put Massachusetts on the road to abolition. Unlike the southern colonies, slave owners in the north had less food to feed the slaves during harsh winters. This fact restricted most New England slave-owning households to just one or two servants. Slaves also had access to the court system in a way that their southern counterparts did not, and could be called upon to give testimony under oath. Andrew, slave of a man named Oliver Wendell, did just that during the trial of the soldiers who participated in the Boston Massacre.
In 1773, black citizens and slaves on Boston organized the first petition to end the slave practice, using some of the same organizational tactics previously used by white patriots to defeat taxation laws. Although the petition was turned down, their effort would inspire another attempt the following year.
Black slaves and freemen had fought bravely in both the French and Indian War and the War of Independence. The contributions of war heroes such as Peter Salem, Salem Poor, and James Forten had not gone unnoticed. Also, artistic and scientific contributions from the likes of poet Phyllis Wheatley and scientist Benjamin Banneker challenged the notions of inherent black inferiority.
Victory against the British Empire also played a part in bringing down slavery in Massachusetts. The evacuation of the Redcoats in 1776 was followed by the evacuation of most of the loyalists or "tories." Many tories owned slaves that they could not take with them, and therefore Boston suddenly had a growing number of free black citizens.
By 1780, the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts became the first former British colony to establish its own state constitution. The first article states "all men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights." These words were published seven years before the US constitution was written.
Two different slaves from similar situations overheard white men speak of this section of the State Constitution in the taverns and on the streets of their towns, and both would take legal actions that would lead to the end of the slave trade in Massachusetts. The two slaves were Mum Bett of Sheffield and Quok Walker of Worcester. Both were viciously attacked by their masters and then ran off, refusing to return. Although neither could read, both managed to find out about the first article of new state constitution. Bett had even heard one of the first readings of the Declaration of Independence. The two slaves approached influential lawyers to give them aide. Mum Bett used the services of Theodore Sedgwick, a future US Senator while Walker approached Levi Lincoln and Caleb Strong, both future governors of Massachusetts. Both cases argued that Article 1 of the State Constitution did not just apply to white men, but to everyone who lived within the state, slaves included. Walker and Bett won their cases. Afterwards, Walker's former master would be found guilty of assault and fined. Mum Bett later changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, and was a direct ancestor to noted activist and philosopher W.E.B. DuBois.
The final nail in the coffin of slavery in Massachusetts came through the efforts of Prince Hall, a war veteran and leader of the countries first African Masonic Lodge. Hall organized a petition after three free black men were abducted and taken as slaves to the West Indies. Quakers, the Boston clergy, and many others joined Hall's efforts sending petitions of their own. The slave trade in Massachusetts came to an official end on March 26, 1788, although slave merchants would continue to conduct their trade in Boston until 1801.
The end of slavery meant freedom for African Americans, but not liberty or equality in American society. They had risen from the level of the slave only to be regarded as third class citizens for another one hundred and seventy seven years. Additionally, when Massachusetts abolished slavery, it did not end the involvement of the state in the slave trade. Many northern banking institutions, including some based in Massachusetts, would prosper by financing the southern rice and cotton plantations that relied on slave labor.
Massachusetts's position as the first state to abolish the slave trade within its borders would inspire the next generation of abolitionists. People such as William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Breecher Stowe, and Frederick Douglass would use the examples set by early abolitionists like Prince Hall, Mum Bett and Quok Walker to expand the fight against slavery nationwide.
Sources and Further Reading:
Greene, Lorenzo Johnston; The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942
Kaplan, Sidney and Emma Nogady; The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. University of Massachusetts Press. Amherst, MA.1989
Melish, Joanne Pope; Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and 'Race' in New England 1780-1860, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998
Edited by Marisa Calleja