Slavery in New England (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)

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Slavery in New England (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)

New England was a region hostile to slavery. Home to such famed abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison, Robert Gould Shaw, and Frederick Douglass, New England had an intellectual tradition opposed to bondage. It also did not have an economy based on slavery. As a result, blacks in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island enjoyed more freedoms than other blacks in New York, Virginia, and Ohio. Nevertheless, bondage and racism did have deep roots in the region. From the perspective of an enslaved African American, New England did not appear to be so radically different from the South.

The British founders of North American colonies did not expressly intend to create slave societies. While early New Englanders enslaved hostile Native Americans and shipped them to the West Indies, occasionally in exchange for African slaves, there was some resistance to the idea of importing slaves from Africa. In 1646, Puritan magistrates ordered that two blacks who had been seized in Africa for sale in Massachusetts be returned to their native land. In 1652, Rhode Island passed a law that condemned the practice of enslaving Africans for life and ordered that any slave brought to the colony be freed after a period of ten years. In essence, Rhode Island's leaders sought to give slaves the same privileges accorded indentured servants. However, the law was not enforced. By the 1690s, New England laws were beginning to regulate the conduct of African slaves.


Slaves in New England generally received a diet adequate in both amount and nutritional makeup. They typically had the same diet as whites and may have consumed a greater range of food than those available in Africa.

Slaves ate a long list of foods: turkey and other game birds; venison; pork; raccoon; bear; muskrat; opossum; beaver; honey; corn; lima beans; scarlet runner beans; green and red peppers; cranberries (crane berries); and sweet potatoes. Africans introduced black-eyed peas to America, a legume that soon became a staple of the slave diet. Staple vegetables for the colonists were turnips, beets, purslane, cabbage, lentils, cauliflower, and asparagus. Pumpkin, easy to grow in the poor soil of New England, was eaten for breakfast, dinner, and supper, as one popular colonial song lamented. In New England after a storm, lobsters piled up on the beach. Crabs and clams were plentiful, while oysters up to 14 inches could feed two people. Eel and salmon spawned in rivers, while shad and cod were far more common than in the modern era when fishing stocks became depleted. Fridays in early colonial New England were mandatory fish days in order to promote the English fishery industry. Common beverages for slaves included cider and beer. The boiling necessary to make beer neutralized most of tainted water's ill effects, although no one realized this for centuries, and the grains added some protein to the diet.

SOURCE: Owens, Leslie Howard. This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

The opposition of some New Englanders to slavery arose from strongly held religious views. Some Christians accepted slavery as a necessary part of a sinful world, but many did not. As refugees from Europe's religious intolerance, some Puritans made the connection between those oppressed on the grounds of religion and those oppressed on the grounds of race. Other Puritans linked the purchase of African slaves to the purchase of stolen goods. While Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, never specifically addressed black bondage, he argued in the 1630s with respect to Native American rights that Puritan leaders should be concerned with matters like theft that have social consequences. In 1700 Massachusetts jurist Samuel Sewall attacked the injustice of enslaving fellow humans who, like the Puritans, were also the descendants of Adam and Eve. Most New Englanders, however, accepted slavery. Befitting the religious origins of the bay colony, Massachusetts used such means as requiring a day of rest on the Sabbath to encourage slaveholders to promote Christianity among their slaves.

The New England economy did not rest on staple crops requiring large numbers of workers, such as tobacco and rice. Accordingly, the region lacked a society based on slavery. However, as with just about everything relating to slavery, there were exceptions. Rhode Island dominated the eighteenth-century Northern slave trade with Africa, and used many slaves in a horse-breeding industry that also led to great estates modeled on those of planters in the West Indies.

While New England did not have a slave society, it was a society with slaves. By 1770, Connecticut contained an estimated 5,698 African Americans, most of them slaves. Vermont had 25 black residents, while there were 4,754 blacks in Massachusetts, including the Massachusetts territory of Maine. Slaves were used chiefly for domestic work but also for farming, for stock-raising, and in rural businesses such as tanneries, salt works, and iron furnaces. Most Northern males worked, so slaves often worked alongside whites, in contrast to the situation in the antebellum South, where planters would not dirty their hands. The races also often mingled socially. Blacks and whites ate the same sorts of foods and wore similar clothing. The fabric used for slave attire was generally not of the same quality as that used for whites' clothes, however.

While apparently almost no colonial New Englanders regarded blacks as the equals of whites, blacks shared many common experiences with whites. During periods of increased conflict with Native Americans, some slaveholders loaned their slaves to serve as members of the militia. Connecticut colonial records report that blacks served in twenty-five different militia companies during the French and Indian War. Military service did not raise the status of blacks, however. Slave Abijah Pierce served in the Deerfield, Massachusetts, militia beginning in the 1740s. Upon gaining his freedom, he purchased and married Lucy Pierce, also of Deerfield and author of the first poem known to be written by a black person in America. The 1756 ceremony was marred by the refusal of the village minister to unite two African Americans and a justice of the peace had to be found to perform the rites.

The American Revolution and Beyond

The best chance for slaves in New England to gain permanent freedom came during the American Revolution, as both sides in the conflict were bidding for the support of blacks. British commanders offered freedom to slaves and some were accused of harboring runaways in the British army. Rhode Island passed slave enlistment laws in 1778 in order to fill critical troop shortages. Every slave who enlisted for the duration of the conflict received automatic freedom.

Meanwhile, revolutionaries who demanded political freedom for themselves found it increasingly difficult to justify keeping other men in chains. A group of Boston African Americans declared in 1773 that they expected great things from men who made such a stand against the efforts of the British to enslave them, and then tied their demand for freedom directly to the natural rights doctrine. Public opinion in New England veered sharply against slavery almost in direct proportion to the deterioration of relations with England. The New England Yearly Meeting appointed a committee to visit Quakers who owned slaves with the object of convincing them of the error of their ways.

Additionally, since England had a large stake in the slave trade, proposals to restrict the traffic fitted neatly into the American strategy of exerting economic pressure on Britain. A Massachusetts law to bar the importation of slaves from Africa failed in 1771 only because Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson vetoed it. Both Connecticut and Rhode Island outlawed the traffic in this era. The Rhode Island prohibition made a specific reference to the idea that those who desired liberty should be willing to extend it to others.

While a growing number of New Englanders in the new nation opposed slavery, the idea of immediately ending the practice seemed absurd to all but a very few. Many of these reformers expressed support for colonization—the gradual end of slavery through the immigration of blacks to Africa—in the belief that African Americans would forever be unable to compete equally with whites and thus the best solution lay in the separation of the races. The colonization movement forced blacks to reconsider their self-designation. African Americans began in the 1840s to avoid the term African while searching for a way to claim U.S. citizenship rights. Accordingly, the African Baptist Church of Boston became the First Independent Church of People of Color. With 110 members in 1851, it was one of the largest black churches in New England and among the largest in the North.

While the numbers of free blacks steadily increased in New England, freedom in the United States had its limits. Support for abolition did not equal support for equal rights for blacks. Free blacks repeatedly complained that abolitionists viewed them as exhibits rather than as advocates for their own liberation. They faulted abolitionists for maintaining white superiority within abolitionist societies.

Freedom could also be tenuous. In many cases, such as that of Frederick Douglass, the term free meant "escaped from slavery." Cities offered the anonymity of numbers as well as the protection and comfort of a large black community. Port cities were especially attractive to fugitives, because of the opportunity to escape completely from the country. Ship officers seldom asked many questions, particularly if their crews were undermanned, so slaves could often sign aboard without too much difficulty. By the eve of the Civil War, most Northern free blacks lived in cities. Most whites, in the North and the South, lived in rural areas, as did 95 percent of slaves. In essence, antebellum free blacks were the most urbanized people in the United States. Boston and New Haven, both major shipping ports, were the urban centers in New England with the most African Americans.

Free African Americans faced competition from poor, landless white wage earners. Many of these workers were new immigrants, especially the Irish. These immigrants, as well as native workers, constantly complained that free people of color depressed their standard of living by working for less. Competition and related racism forced many free blacks, including those moving to the North from the South, to fill jobs as cooks and waiters instead of working in the skilled trades. When Douglass, a skilled ship caulker, arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he found that white workers threatened to walk off the job in protest if a ship hired him.

As competition between free blacks and white workers intensified, whites defined certain jobs in racial terms. By doing so, they shut some doors to black workers and opened others. Most blacks worked in jobs classified as general labor, household work, and domestic service. These positions typically required heavy lifting, loading, carrying, and cleaning. By the 1850s, 77 percent of free black men in Boston held such jobs. Most women worked as poorly paid domestics in the homes of whites. Although the majority of free blacks lived in households headed by couples, the number of female-headed households increased over time. In Boston, the percentage of free black families headed by couples decreased from about 66 percent to 60 percent during the 1850s alone.

Free blacks were faced not only with limitations on employment, but citizenship restrictions as well. These restrictions were not as severe in New England as in other parts of the country. By 1860, only four states—all in New England—allowed free blacks unrestricted access to the ballot. These states were Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. With the exception of Massachusetts, New England states barred blacks from jury service.

New England's liberality on voting rights did not extend to housing or education. Quaker Prudence Crandall, an abolitionist and teacher, integrated her Connecticut girls' school in 1833 despite considerable local opposition that eventually resulted in her conviction for violating a newly enacted Black Law. The legislation aimed to shut down Crandall's boarding school by making it a crime for blacks who were not residents of Connecticut to attend school in the state. Crandall was convicted when a state court concluded that African Americans were not entitled to the same rights as Connecticut residents because blacks were not citizens. By the time of the Civil War, however, most New England public schools accepted black students alongside white ones.

Antebellum New England also restricted the access of blacks to the housing market. In Boston, when a free black family made plans to move into a white neighborhood in the 1830s, white neighbors threatened to demolish the home rather than allow African Americans to move into the community. The term given to a black community in Boston, Nigger Hill, illustrates both spatial concentration and white hostility to blacks. Housing restrictions remained in effect long after the abolition of slavery.

Slavery in New England came to a gradual halt. Massachusetts officially ended the practice with its 1781 constitution, which declared all men to be born free. A court case, Brom and Bett v. John Ashley, Esq., found that the document applied to blacks as well as whites. Vermont also ended slavery with its new 1777 constitution and a subsequent court decision. New Hampshire, a state with relatively few slaves and a weak antislavery movement, ended slavery legally in 1783, though the practice was not fully extinguished until about 1853. Rhode Island officially ended slavery in 1784, with the actual end of slavery coming in 1842. Connecticut outlawed slavery in 1784, with the actual end in 1848. Despite the late dates of their final ending of slavery, these states were all free in practice by 1800.


Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

McManus, Edgar J. Black Bondage in the North. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1973.

Rael, Patrick. Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Trotter, Joe William, Jr. The African American Experience. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Van Broekhoven, Deborah Bingham. The Devotion of These Women: Rhode Island in the Antislavery Network. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipations: The Abolition of Slavery in the North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.

                                    Caryn E. Neumann

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Slavery in New England (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)

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Slavery in New England (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)