The Massachusetts House of Representatives Committee Report for a Bill concerning the Admission of Free Negroes and Mulattoes into the State of Massachusetts, January 16, 1822.
The purpose of this Massachusetts Legislative Report was to revisit the never enforced 1788 Massachusetts Law restricting Blacks from other states from migrating to Massachusetts. The 1822 Report provides an interesting and concise history of slavery in Massachusetts.
The following excerpts have been edited and transcribed exactly from the report whenever possible.
There is also a much more detailed account of slavery in Massachusetts written by Beverly’s Robert Rantoul: “Negro Slavery in Massachusetts”, published in 1887.
The earliest mention of Slaves which the Committee have been able to discover is in the year 1639. – On the 20 of October of that year one of the early writers upon New England had occasion to go on shore upon Noddles Island in Boston Harbour, at that time in possession of one Maverick, and there found a Negroe man and two Negroe women. From the circumstance that neither of the women could speak or understand English it is evident that they had been in this country only a short time. One of the women was said to have been a person of great rank in Africa and was treated by the others with great respect.
In 1703 a Law was passed imposing a duty of four pounds upon every Negro imported into the Province. The whole duty was to be refunded in the event that the Negro was exported within twelve months, or died within six weeks.
These Slaves were procured in several ways – either from the Dutch in New York, from the Southern Provinces [or from trade with the West Indies] … [there is little evidence that many slaves came to Massachusetts as a result of] direct trade… with Africa.
[In 1708] Thirty-three free Negroes are mentioned in the minutes of the Selectmen of Boston in 1708 to whom, according to a law of the Province, two hundred and eighteen days of labour were assigned upon the highways and other public works…
..In 1712 the importation of Indians as servants or slaves was strictly forbidden under a penalty of forfeiture of the subject thus introduced…
In 1754 there was [a Massachusetts Census] … all Slaves of and above the age of Sixteen years. One hundred and nineteen towns [responded] but the returns of many towns have not been preserved.
1754 Slave Enumeration By Massachusetts County
Suffolk: 1,270 Essex: 442 Middlesex: 361 York County [Maine]: 147 Plymouth: 133 Bristol: 122 Worcester: 88 Barnstable: 76 Hampshire: 74 Dukes: 7
Total: 2,720 slaves
…There is little doubt that the return of 1754 was very incomplete. A learned writer upon one of the New England States think that Slaves were more numerous before 1763, as many had enlisted in [the Navy or in the Army] for the purpose of obtaining their freedom and this opinion was confirmed by the observations of Prince Hall “a very intelligent black man” whom the author consulted. The period of their greatest number was therefore in all probability between 1740 and 1750 [with the great majority] of slaves … chiefly employed in the Maritime towns.
In the year 1763, the number of blacks was Five thousand two hundred and fourteen and to the whites as one is to forty-five. [the white population approximately 234,630]
In 1776, the number of blacks was Five thousand two hundred + fortynine and to the whites as one is to sixty-five. [the white population approximately 341,185]
In 1784, the number of Blacks was Four thousand three hundred + ninety-seven, and to the whites as one is to eighty. [the white population approximately 351,760]
In 1770 Negroes began to sue their masters for their freedom and for payment of all services rendered after the age of twenty-one. Many actions for that purpose were brought between this time and the Revolution all of which were successful…
…Several towns passed votes abolishing Slavery within their precincts and discharging the Masters of Slaves thus emancipated from all liability to charges for the support of the slave – a very meritorious proceeding but a certain confession that Slavery was recognized by the laws of the Commonwealth.
In 1773 a petition was presented by the Negroes praying for the abolition of Slavery. This petition was read and referred to the next Session; but it does not appear to have been called up at that time.
In January 1774, A Bill “to prevent the importation of Negroes and others as slaves into this Province” – passed both the Council and the House of Representatives and on the 8th day of March it was presented to Governor Hutchinson for his signature but the next day the House was prorogued [discontinued or dissolved]. The Governor however informed a deputation of Negroes, who had gone to his house to solicit his [approval] of the bill that his instructions strictly forbade him from approving any bill which should have a tendency to check the Slave trade. His Successor Governor Gage used language equally decided and emphatic, and no doubt [was of the opinion that the British Government was as determined] to resist all endeavors to abolish Slavery as to remove those other acts by which this Country was at that time oppressed.
..The constitution of this State in 1780 [declared] that all men are born free and equal… A man [Nathaniel Jennison] tried in Worcester in 1783, for beating a black [Quock Walker] whom he called his Slave, was found guilty and fined forty shillings by an application by the Judge of this principle.
It may therefore be properly considered that Slavery was effectually abolished in this State just before the Declaration of Independence, though the law by which this event was officially and formerly made known was not passed till the 26th March 1788, seventeen years before the abolition in Denmark, the earliest European abolition. This law imposed a penalty of 50 pounds upon every citizen or person residing in this Commonwealth for each Slave bought or transported and 200 pounds upon every vessel engaged in the Slave trade.
Editors note: There is documentary evidence that the slave trade was still active from Salem Harbor as part of Triangular Trade in the late 1780s. See Slave Ship Manifest of the Brigate Favorite in 1786. Captain William Fairfield of the Salem Slaveship Felicity was killed onboard his ship in a Slave Insurrection in 1789 (WDE)
Ironically, a law, the constitutionality of which has been called into question, was passed on the same day as the Abolition Act of March 1785, in order to prevent the state from being overrun with runaway slaves – blacks having the same public provisions for education, and the same public support in case of sickness and poverty.
Editors note: This 1788 Massachusetts law restricting blacks from other sates from migrating to Massachusetts was never enforced. The original purpose of the Massachusetts House of Representatives’ Committee Report “Free Negroes and Mulattoes, January 1822” was to revisit this 1788 Massachusetts law.
Many blacks before and during the Revolution having obtained their freedom by a legal process, and as a spirit of constitution of this state abolish all exclusive [discriminatory] laws, thereby invested with all the rights of free men and with the capability of becoming freeholders; and the constitution distinctly declares that a freeholder without other exception than relates to religion, property, and age, is capable of being elected or appointed to any office or place under the state.
In the first census of the inhabitants of the United States in the year 1790, no other than free persons were enumerated from Massachusetts, the only state in the union, which at that time did not contain slaves, and the only state represented in the first Congress, held at New York in 1789, which had formally abolished slavery.