In 1773 and 1774, the people of Massachusetts submitted numerous petitions in defense of their rights and natural liberties. Among these petitions were several submitted by slaves asking for an end to slavery. The Governor and legislature rejected these petitions out of hand, if they considered them at all. So, by themselves, they have little significance. But they are part of a larger effort by slaves to demand reconsideration of their status in society.
The petitions give me an opportunity to talk about the status of slaves and how the Revolution began to change things. I haven’t really discussed slavery much at all so far, and was reluctant to address it now. Today, of course, there is near universal agreement that slavery was a bad thing. But coverage of the topic is still controversial in that failure to condemn the institution with sufficient vehemence is taken by some as somehow supporting that system. So for the record, I’ll say at the outset that slavery, especially as practiced in the Americas, was particularly unjust, wrong, and immoral in my opinion. The other reason I was reluctant to address it is there some really good specialized studies of American slavery that is a whole category apart from the revolution itself. My brief discussion today barely scratches the surface of this interesting topic.
That said, there were a few slavery issues during the early 1770’s that deserve attention. Therefore, I am using this episode as a brief overview of the slavery as it existed at the beginning of the war.
Slavery in the British Empire
Just as there is a consensus today that slavery is wrong, As the colonies developed, there seemed to be a consensus that there was nothing wrong with slavery. Before the Revolution, we find rather little debate over the notion of emancipation just about anywhere. Slavery existed as as common practice throughout most of the world. Few even seemed to question the practice.
|George Washington and slaves (from Newslea)|
In North America, there are a few examples of Europeans enslaving other Europeans early in the period of colonization, but these were very rare and ended quickly. Attempts to enslave Indians failed, because Indians kept locally could run away too easily. Shipping them to other parts of the world resulted in them dying off quickly, often before they could be sold. So, enslavement of Africans became the norm. There are also many examples of Indian tribes enslaving both white and black captives. But in most cases, slaves eventually either left or became a part of the tribe. They typically did not remain slaves, nor did their children.
Most slaves coming to America ended up in the Caribbean Islands or South America. Only a very small percentage, less than half a million, ever came to the British colonies of North America over the entire history of the American slave trade. Only a small percentage of that small percentage went to New England.
|The bulk of the slave trade when to South American and the |
Caribbean (from National Endowment for the Humanities)
Many of the terrible conditions we associate with slavery, inadequate food, clothing and shelter, the threat of physical abuse if one did not satisfy the demands of one’s master, the inability to change jobs, were all things that many supposedly free commoners also experienced. As a practical matter in daily living standards, an unskilled commoner’s life was not that far removed from actual slavery.
The spread of enlightenment ideas in the 1700’s made the slavery question more complicated. Enlightenment thinkers held that all men were born free, with certain natural rights, liberty among them. Even poor working people had at least a limited choice in what work they did and for whom they worked, even if exercising those choices could be risky for them. Slavery did not even offer those basic options. How then, could one justify one subset of men born into servitude without liberty and without having done anything to deserve their status? For most, the answer seemed to be not to think about it too much.
For those, however, who did start to think about the basic rights of man and the notion that there were some basic universal rights, slavery stood in stark contrast to those notions. Enlightenment ideas almost necessarily brought one to the conclusion that slavery could not exist in a just society. Making that idea a reality though, was not something that would come quickly or easily.
The first sizable group in North America that really questioned slavery was the Society of Friends, mostly in Pennsylvania, also known as the Quakers. Historians can point to religious debates among Quakers going back to the 1600’s. Even among Quakers though, it was not until the 1740’s that they began as a group to end participation in the slave trade, and free their own slaves. As late as 1738, a Quaker meeting in Pennsylvania disowned one of its members, Benjamin Lay, for protesting slave ownership among its members. It was not until 1774 that Quakers categorically forbade members from owning slaves or participating in the slave trade. By that time, Quakers were the largest group leading the effort to end slavery. For them, it became a fundamental moral and religious issue that combined with their enlightenment thinking.
|Pennsylvania Abolition Society Seal (from PA Abolition Soc.)|
Philadelphia became an early center of abolition. It would eventually become the first State to pass a law explicitly abolishing slavery in 1780.
Massachusetts would become a center of abolitionist sentiment in the early 1800’s. But before and during the Revolution, it continued to support the practice with only minority opposition.
When the colonists began asserting enlightenment philosophy as a defense of their rights against Parliament, many began to think about how these ideals squared with the practice of slavery. As early as 1764 James Otis, in his pamphlet in opposition to the Sugar Act, seemed to go out of his way to include blacks among those entitled to the rights of liberty: “...the colonists, black and white, born here, are free born British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such..“ Otis, though, seems to have been in a very small minority who were willing to grant both black and white colonists the same rights.
|Advertisement for the sale of slaves, |
Boston Gazette, 1768
(from Adverts 250)
I also want to mention a largely forgotten event in New York in 1741, where colonists literally burned at the stake 17 slaves, and hanged 17 others who were accused of participating in acts of arson around town. Again, colonists felt the need to use terror, with the absolutely horrific act of burning men to death, even with little evidence that they were guilty of the crimes accused, as a way of keeping order. Some level of terror was critical to maintaining the slave system.
By this time, all slaves were of African descent, but not everyone of African descent was a slave. a few Africans arrived in America as free men. Most of these came as sailors on merchant vessels. Others purchased their freedom or were the children of free blacks.
One of the problems for slave owners was motivating slaves to work. Punishments might get a minimum of effort, but a motivated worker will put in extra effort. Some owners promised slaves their eventual freedom if they met certain performance goals. There are several notable cases in New England regarding contract disputes between a slave and master over freedom. Courts did seem to allow slaves to bring such suits, and often awarded freedom to the slave.
Free blacks in New England tended to have the same rights as any other free men. They participated in the militia. In fact, some masters permitted their slaves to serve in the militia as well. One of the militiamen wounded at Lexington was a slave named Prince Estabrook.
Despite these tentative first steps, Massachusetts was not ready to end slavery altogether. In 1767, the colonial legislature considered bills to end slavery and the slave trade, but rejected both. In 1771 the legislature finally passed a bill banning importation of slaves into the colony, but Gov. Hutchinson refused to sign the bill into law.
Around this same period, we see tracts being circulated more often, to end slavery or the slave trade. If a majority was not yet ready to make the change, the debate was beginning happen. In 1773, a group calling itself the “Sons of Affrica” petitioned Gov. Hutchinson to end the slave trade. The Governor received another petition early in 1774 before leaving the colony. He did not act on either of them. When Gov. Gage arrived, he received another similar petition in the summer of 1774. He also ignored it.
The calls for liberty and notions that colonists were at risk of becoming slaves themselves was almost laughable to the men and women held in actual slavery by these same colonists. Caeser Sarter, a Massachusetts colonist who has purchased his own freedom from slavery years earlier, wrote in a call to free the slaves in 1774 “I need not point out the absurdity of your exertions for liberty when you have slaves in your houses.”
|Phillis Wheatley (from Britannica)|
As I mentioned, some black men, both free and slaves, served in various New England militia. Unlike southern colonists, New Englanders did not seem concerned about a slave uprising, probably because slaves remained a relatively small percentage of the population.
When the New England militia came together to form the Provincial Army following Lexington and Concord, many of those bearing arms against the British were African American. Black and white troops were not segregated as happened in later generations. Black and white men served together side by side in the same units.
Just after the Boston Tea Party, the Town Meeting of Medford, Massachusetts issued resolves like many other towns. Medford’s resolves though included several pointing out the hypocrisy of fighting for fundamental liberties while denying those same basic rights to others. While it would still take years to enact, the abolition movement followed closely behind the logic that sparked the Revolution.
Massachusetts would also end slavery in 1781, following a court case that held the Constitution of 1780 had outlawed slavery when it declared that all men had a right to liberty.
In the South, where slave populations were much larger, the issue of slavery seemed harder to reform. Virginia had essentially banned slave trade in 1772 by placing a prohibitive tariff on the importation of new slaves. I’ve read some arguments that this had more to do with economic and social issues than moral ones. Planter elites did not want smaller planters purchasing lots of cheap slave labor that would compete with their own plantations.
Still, many colonial leaders in Virginia, Washington and Jefferson among them, began to talk more about the implications of slavery in light of their views on liberty. Clearly they were uncomfortable with the contradiction, even if they were not ready to lose their fortunes through immediate abolition.
In the South, where slaves often outnumbered free men, there was always the fear of a slave revolt. A primary purpose of the militia was its capability of putting down such a revolt. Typically, freed blacks could not participate in militia drills. When the patriots in Virginia began forming their own militias, they permitted black freemen to participate, but not to carry guns. They could serve as drummers or in other non-combat roles.
When hostilities broke out, Royal Gov. Lord Dunmore threatened to foment a slave uprising against the Patriots. He would follow through on that threat in the fall of 1775 when he issued a Proclamation offering freedom to slaves who fled their masters to fight for the British. I plan to get into that in more detail in a future episode. But even in the spring of 1775, Dunmore made threats that made the Patriot planter class very nervous.
Somerset v. Stewart
South Carolina had the largest percentage of slaves in its population. Ironically, the colony’s support for slavery may have helped drive it into support for Independence. In 1771, a Boston customs official named Charles Stewart went to London with his slave James Somerset. Somerset tried to use the trip as an opportunity to escape into freedom. Stewart recaptured his slave and decided to ship him off to Jamaica where he would be sold.
(from Accessible Archives)
Slave owners in South Carolina, therefore, grew nervous that Parliament might simply decide to emancipate their slaves in the colonies as well. Many slave owners became more inclined to fight for the rights of colonial governments to control their own internal affairs. They wanted to see Parliament’s authority limited and therefore sided with the Patriot faction.
David Margrett Escapes
Word of the fighting in Lexington and Concord, and word from London that officials might consider fomenting a slave uprising among the patriots raised existing fears to near panic among the white elite in South Carolina.
David Margrett, a free black preacher based in Savannah Georgia, had been preaching to slaves in the Charleston area for some time. Margett had lived in England, and had convinced an aristocrat to finance his ministry in America. Margrett liked to preach on Exodus particularly, and the struggle of the Jews to escape slavery in Egypt. Local whites did not like this uncomfortable topic. Fears over a possible revolt led locals to decide it would be best to hang him. Fortunately for Margrett, he got advance warning and was able to flee back to England. Other prominent blacks were not so fortunate.
Hanging Thomas Jeremiah
In the 1800s, South Carolina, along with most other southern States, passed laws to prevent free blacks from living in the State. They feared that a free black population might eventually form the leadership of a slave revolt.
But in 1775, no such laws existed, and a very small number of free blacks lived in South Carolina. One of them was Thomas Jeremiah, a pilot in Charleston Harbor who prospered and began to acquire a small fleet of ships. He even owned a few slaves of his own, to help run his growing enterprise.
None of this helped him though when two slaves accused him of encouraging them to rebel. There is almost no record of Jeremiah’s trial or the evidence against him, but it appears to be extremely scant. Several prominent white men of Charleston, including Patriot leader Henry Laurens and the Royal governor William Campbell thought he was unfairly railroaded.
Under South Carolina law, even though Jeremiah was a free man with property, as soon as he was accused of a crime, his race required that he be tried in slave court. There, he was considered guilty until he could prove himself innocent. He had no right to an attorney nor even to compel witnesses in his favor to appear.
Unsurprisingly, the court found him guilty. No appeals were allowed, and he hanged. The Governor considered offering clemency, but decided against it after his advisors warned that releasing Jeremiah would only result in his being lynched.
So while New England and the mid-atlantic colonies were at the very beginnings of a movement to apply notions of liberty to black slaves, the deep south’s fear of a slave uprising caused them to move in the opposite direction, seeing blacks as a threat to their way of life rather than brothers in the cause of liberty.
Obviously, this issue would only grow over time.
- - -
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Rediker, Markus "The Quaker Comet Was the Greatest Abolitionist You’ve Never Heard Of" Smithsonian Magazine, Sept. 2017: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/quaker-comet-greatest-abolitionist-never-heard-180964401
An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping:
Mark and Phillis Executions, 1755: http://www.celebrateboston.com/crime/puritan-mark-and-phillis-executions.htm
Orrison, Rob A Negro Man" Prince Estabrook of Lexington:
Phillis Wheatley: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley
The Rise and Fall of the Slave Trade in Massachusetts By Cliff Odle (Two Parts)
Anti-Slavery before the Revolutionary War by Sylvia R. Frey
African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts (Mass Historical Soc):
For petitions in Massachusetts to end slavery:
Somersett v. Stewart: http://www.accessible-archives.com/2012/11/case-of-somersett-from-freedoms-journal
David Margrett (PDF): http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/42818/1/WRAP_Lockley_9670721-hi-160114-margrettblackatlantic.pdf
(from archive.org unless noted)
Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Court of King's Bench 1772-1774, Dublin: James Moore, 1790 (contains opinion in Somerset v. Stewart).
Hargrave, Francis, An Argument in the Case of James Sommersett, London: self-published 1772.
Moore, George Historical notes on the employment of Negroes in the American Army of the Revolution, New York: C.T. Evans, 1862.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Borneman, Walter American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2014.
Glibert, Alan Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012.
Harris, J. William The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty, New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2009.
McManus, Edgar Black Bondage in the North, Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1973.
Nash, Gary The Unknown American Revolution, New York: Viking Press, 2006.
Warren, Wendy New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, New York: Liveright, 2016.
* This site is a registered Amazon Associate. Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site. If you start by clicking on a book link here and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.
Amazon Books on the American Revolution