To listen to Episode 3, click here to visit the show page.
This article supplements the History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Academy.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jamelle Bouie: Welcome to the third episode of the History of American Slavery, a Slate Academy. My name is Jamelle Bouie. I am a Slate staff writer.
Rebecca Onion: And my name is Rebecca Onion. I’m Slate’s history writer.
Bouie: In each episode, we’re looking at a different chapter in the history of slavery in America, and starting the conversation with the life of a single person.
This episode, we’re talking about Elizabeth Freeman.
* * *
Who was Elizabeth Freeman?
We don’t know Elizabeth Freeman’s exact birthday, but it was probably in 1742. She was born in Claverack, New York, to enslaved parents whose origins are lost to us. As an infant she was sold to the magistrate and soldier John Ashley, in the western Massachusetts town of Sheffield. During her enslaved life she was known as “Bett,” no last name. Later, after she had a daughter, she came to be known as “Mum Bett.”
John Ashley’s house was a place where people talked with great passion about the new ideas in the air surrounding the time of the Revolutionary War—of “Natural Law,” and of the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and other enlightenment philosophers. Attending to Ashley’s table, Freeman heard discussions of the Sheffield Resolves, which were a locally published precursor to the Declaration of Independence, and of the new Massachusetts Constitution, which was adopted in 1780. Later, she attended a public reading of Jefferson’s Declaration, in Sheffield. Freeman wondered why these new ideas didn’t apply to her own life. She came to the conclusion that her enslavement was wrong under Massachusetts’ new laws.
After coming into conflict with her mistress one too many times, she left the house and asked an abolition-minded lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, to help her sue for freedom. Another enslaved servant in the Ashley house joined her suit. Sedgwick brought the case to the county court, where it succeeded. It became an important precedent to a later superior court case that established the illegality of slavery in Massachusetts.
After winning her suit, Mum Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman. The Ashleys asked her to come back and serve in their household as a paid servant. She declined. Instead, she worked for the Sedgwicks, the family of her lawyer.
She died in 1829 in her eighties. Her children inscribed this on her gravestone in the Stockbridge Cemetery:
She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years; She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell.
* * *
Bouie: In today’s episode, we are talking about the shape of slavery in the Revolutionary Period. How the enlightenment ideas that both shaped the Revolution and helped found our government also encouraged and inhibited the spread of slavery in the entire United States. And then, from there, we’ll talk a bit about the ways in which Northern and Southern states handled slavery in their courts and in their legal systems.
But before we do any of that, we’re going to talk a bit about Elizabeth Freeman.
Onion: Hey Jamelle.
Bouie: So that sounds like a really remarkable life.
Bouie: Stories like this always make me wonder, we get lots of movies about the same kind of person in American history—lots of stories about founding fathers, lots of war heroes—but we don’t get to see very many people like her. And I would love to see her movie.
Onion: There’s so many ins and outs to her life, and there’s so much courage and strength—it would be a great subject for a script.
Bouie: Why did you choose this story? And where did you find it?
Onion: You know, it’s funny I can’t even remember where I came across it. It might have been in Doug Egerton’s book, one of our guests today.
But, you know, as soon as I read it I thought, this is a women who, although she was nominally on the periphery of life in Massachusetts, she also was absorbing everything around her, thinking about everything that was happening. You know, put the new ideas that she was finding out about into practice—like quickly. And really changed things for people in Massachusetts.
I had certain preconception, before I read a lot of the stuff that I read for this series, about what happened with slavery during the Revolutionary War and right afterward. I was always sort of taught the controversy over slavery at the constitutional convention. You know, decisions were made by a bunch of white guys in a stuffy room. And they sort of fought over what they were going to put into the charter for the new nation.
But the Mum Bett case made me think things were happening on a lot of different levels. There was stuff happening at the local level, in people’s conversations like on the street and in their drawing room and in the tavern, discussions in state legislatures. People are just talking about it everywhere.
And of course it makes perfect sense that somebody like Mum Bett, who’s a smart person, who’s around a lot of smart ideas being discussed, would be thinking about it, and talking about it, and taking action.
Did you have preconceived ideas about what happened with slavery during the war?
Bouie: I don’t think I actually had any preconceived idea.
I mean, partly that’s a product of my own knowledge gaps. My knowledge of slavery really kind of begins after the war of 1812. And I know from schools, just from high school, that we kind of talked about slavery during the colonial period as almost an afterthought.
For me, all of this raises a couple of questions.
So first, I wonder if white colonials were concerned about what might happen with the Revolution and with the institution of slavery. Because imagine, you have revolution in the air, people are fighting, all sorts of disruption happened. And you have, at a certain point, British officials saying, “Come fight for us and you’ll get your freedom.” What about those slaves who take that offer seriously? What do white colonial Americans think about that? How did they react?
Onion: It also really pinpoints the geographical difference between what it meant to be enslaved in the north and what it meant to be enslaved in the south. Because you have these ideas circulating in both places, and enslaved people hearing them and thinking about what to do, but the cases are really different, and the consequences for what people did in these different places are really different.
That is interesting to me as well.
Bouie: That’s right. Different people are going to make different kind of calculations about how to achieve their interests, and that includes both people who owned slaves and the enslaved themselves. And I’d sort of like to know more about those choices.
Onion: Yeah, exactly.
After the break we’re going to talk a little bit more about how slavery fit into some of the other intellectual discussions that were going on about the rights of man while Elizabeth Freeman was listening and thinking.
* * *
Bouie: We’re discussing the ideas behind the American Revolution and how they related to slavery. And Rebecca, you discussed this with Doug Egerton, a professor of history at Lemoyne College in Syracuse, New York.
Onion: Doug knows a lot about this subject because he wrote a really good called, Death or Liberty: African-Americans in Revolutionary America.
I was sort of thinking about what we talked about in the last episode, about Quakers in England and their influence on abolitionism. So I asked Doug if there was a parallel history of antislavery thought in the colonies before the Revolution.
Douglas Egerton: Ah, the first critiques of slavery in the 18th century were largely religious, mostly from the Quakers.
Benjamin Lay, who was a former resident of English Caribbean who moved to Philadelphia in the 1730s, began to write essays criticizing slavery as a violation of the brotherhood of man and the love of god. That picked up steam by the 1750s. John Woolman, another Quaker living in New Jersey, began to argue that Quakers could not be in good standing if they owned their fellow man. Anthony Benezet, also, did the same thing in the 1750s. When the black mariner Olaudah Equiano visited Philadelphia during that period he went to a Quaker meetinghouse in part because he had heard that they were the enemies of slavery.
It was though, an interesting critique. In that while it was religious and did emphasize brotherhood of all people—part of it also was simply the Quaker notion that one should live a simple life, and therefore having people do labor for you was kind of a violation of that principle.
Bouie: So did anyone actually listen to the Quakers?
Onion: This is sort of the same story as we heard in the last episode, from Adam Hochschild, when he talked about the initial reception of the Quakers in England. Doug said the same thing, that Quakers weren’t really trusted. Or that they were a minority.
Some of the things that they believed that were unrelated to slavery—for example they were pacifists, so The French and Indian Wars they weren’t participating. And so their neighbors were inclined to view them with some skepticism.
Bouie: The idea of Quakers as untrustworthy is hilarious.
Onion: I know! Isn’t it though? It doesn’t sound right.
Bouie: So there weren’t just the Quakers in 18th-century America, there were also enlightenment philosophers. And people influenced by enlightenment philosophers. What were they saying about slavery.
Onion: So yeah, this is something that Doug said had a much bigger impact.
Egerton: It was in fact the economic critique of slavery that I think had a far greater impact than say did the Quaker-Christian critique.
Political philosophers like the Baron of Montesquieu who wrote a very important series of books in the 1740s called The Spirit of the Laws, which was widely read in the colonies—the Baron of Montesquieu of James Madison’s favorite political philosopher—people like John Locke, Adam Smith, who in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that also criticized slavery, on moral grounds but also on economic grounds, that it was simply bad economics.
That did have an impact, probably a greater impact, especially outside of Pennsylvania, than did the Quakers. Because these were people who were widely read by the intelligentsia in the colonies, from New England down to the South.
And of course they weren’t reading these books because of their critiques of slavery. They were mostly reading them for ideas about how to create more perfect governments. The Baron of Montesquieu of course is sort of the founding father of the idea of checks and balances. But the ideas are there.
And so for anyone reading, you know, The Spirit of the Laws or The Theory of Moral Sentiments, you couldn’t avoid that critique of slavery. And because these were critiques made by people who have enormous standing, who were upper class—I mean the Baron of Montesquieu was a noble!—the critiques are very staid, they’re not emotional, they’re very logical.
It’s that kind of critique that really did have an impact.
Bouie: You know, the idea that slavery’s bad because of bad economics suggests that slavery would be OK if there were good economics. But that aside, what does the idea of “bad economics” even mean in this period?
Onion: So it had to do with the nature of people’s motivation for participating in economic systems. But Doug explained that in terms of John Locke.
Egerton: For a political philosopher like John Locke, who was of course the poster boy for free-waged labor, small government getting out of the way, of business—for Locke, slavery was essentially an antiquated notion of labor organization. It was feudalism alive again in the 18th century, which is not far wrong.
So, here too there’s a critique of slavery that is not made so much on behalf of the slave, that it’s simply morally wrong to enslave and to steal their labor.
Locker’s critique and to a lesser extent Montesquieu’s critique, is simply that, that it’s a clumsy, inefficient, and backward way to organize labor in a modern society. That slaves only work hard when they’re coerced to do so. The whole idea of course behind Locke’s free wage labor theory is that as people work for themselves, for what he called their enlightened self-interest, people will work harder and therefore the entire society as a whole will benefit.
And so if you have large numbers of slaves who are providing labor only grudgingly, Locke would say that’s a poor way to organize the economy and that will have a very negative effect on the overall prosperity of any given society that organizes labor that way.
Bouie: What about the concept of natural rights? How does that fit into all of this? Because I went to UVA, Thomas Jefferson is our mascot, essentially. And I learned quite a bit about the concept of natural rights, the language of natural rights.
And so—how did that factor into the critique of slavery? And did they come from some of the founding fathers themselves who were steeped in it?
Onion: For sure. What was interesting to me was to hear from Doug how that went sort of hand in hand with these other pragmatic critiques.
But yes, he did tell me a little about natural rights, and especially about the power of it.
Egerton: The idea of natural rights is that simply there were certain things, and Locke of course characterized this as life, liberty and the pursuit of property; Thomas Jefferson plagiarized that into life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . The idea simply that these things were a given. That they could not be denied; they could not be infringed upon by other people, by government; again because they were a concept as natural as gravity—they simply existed. It was a given.
I mean, notice what Jefferson says in the Declaration—“It’s a self evident truth…” Once you announce something as self evident, then there can be no debate, discussion, disagreement—it’s self-evident; it simply exists. And so once Americans started to go down that road, to say that they had natural rights—it becomes very hard to say, “But that’s only for small segments of the population.
Bouie: You know, America in the 18th century was probably more literate than most places in the Western world, but it wasn’t especially literate. How would people who couldn’t read have even heard of these concepts or these ideas?
Onion: Well that was on of the most interesting things about the Mum Bett story was the way that she found out about this stuff. We talked a little bit about how these ideas became public.
Egerton: The discourse of natural rights was something that, by the 1760s, was the kind of discourse you simply could not get away from. You walk into a tavern in Manhattan and someone is standing on a chair reading Tom Paine and holding a tankard of ale in the other hand, and everybody is listening. It was the kind of talk you literally could not escape from in the 15–20 years before the Revolution.
And of course everybody who is in these taverns hearing this kind of discourse—it’s not just white men. It’s enslaved domestics, it’s black mariners.
And this kind of talk is very empowering.
Bouie: I’m going to push back a little bit here to say that, you know, there are political philosophers, like Charles Mills, who do argue that in fact they specifically meant this idea for—for white men. And that blacks were excluded almost by design. But that might be a conversation for a different time—
Onion: Ha, ha. Wait! Say more about that. What do you mean?
Bouie: Well, Mills argues that in constructing a social contract, the enlightenment philosophers also kind of construct a related but not parallel racial contract, in which ideas of personhood and personal liberty are talked about in universal terms, but are really just meant for white Europeans.
And that this racial contract provides the basis for justifying slavery and later for justifying European imperialism.
Onion: Hm. I’m going to have to read that. Is his argument that that happens inside the text or sort of in a parallel set of texts?
Bouie: His argument is sort of both. That it occurs in the same text and that it occurs in other texts by the same authors. So like John Locke, his day job was as something of an anthropologist, and he thought of Africans as lesser beings.
And so if you merge that into his thought of natural rights, then you have a bit of a contradiction. Like, how do you resolve that contradiction.
Onion: I wish that Doug was here right now because I would love to hear what he has to say about that.
But we did talk a little about the differences between someone like Thomas Paine, the way he argued it, and the way that some of the sort of more elite philosophers like Locke argued it.
You know, Doug was saying that Thomas Paine, was one of only a number of sort of artisan class people—at that time it would have been called—who wrote pamphlets that were pro natural rights and some antislavery pamphlets. If the elite enlightenment philosophers are more qualified and specific about what they mean, that these writers were sort of um, much more
Onion: Yeah, populist, exactly. And that those were the writers that were being read in these taverns that he describes.
We have this “African Slavery in America” pamphlet that Thomas Paine wrote. So this was written in 1774 and published in 1775 in the Pennsylvania Journal and The Weekly Advertiser.
What did you think of this? He’s very emphatic, let’s say.
Bouie: Yes. He’s very—
And first of all, you know, if you had asked me, um, to identify who wrote this, and just told me when it was written, I would have guessed Thomas Paine, because Thomas Paine was very fond of flowery and kind of emphatic language. And this is here in abundance.
But you know, the thing that really stands out to me is in fact that abundance. That he really denounces slavery in words that would sound familiar to William Garrison a couple decades later. There’s a passage where he says:
So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all, abstracted from the barbarous usage they suffer, and the many evils attending the practice; as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents, and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incests, and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty Masters must answer to the final Judge.
That’s like fire and brimstone language.
Onion: For sure.
And that word natural is in there. “The sacred and natural ties,” the sort of sense that as a human you have these rights—
Onion: —that are being violated.
Yeah, that adulterous and incest thing—yeah that surprised me a little, and I wonder what that’s about. I think maybe the implication is that if you lose your sense of who your family is in slavery, then you lose—you know, you see later on, that there’s a little bit of a concern about that, that you might end up with your brother or sister or whatever without knowing it.
The thing that stood out to me really, was the denouncement of one of the common excuses, or apologies for slavery.
Quite often there was an argument that biblically people had enslaved prisoners that they took in war, and that that was sort of justified enslaving Africans, because their enslavement was the result of some kind of conflict that had happened in Africa. And that they were being saved, basically, from being enslaved from their mortal enemies in Africa somewhere.
And Paine says, “No, we’re basically lying. No, this isn’t true at all.” He says instead:
The Managers the Trade themselves, and others testify, that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty, and lived quietly, averse to war, before the Europeans debauched them with liquors, and bribing them against one another; and that these inoffensive people are brought into slavery, by stealing them, tempting Kings to sell subjects, which they can have no right to do, and hiring one tribe to war against another, in order to catch prisoners. By such wicked and inhuman ways the English are said to enslave towards one hundred thousand yearly; of which thirty thousand are supposed to die by barbarous treatment in the first year; besides all that are slain in the unnatural ways excited to take them. So much innocent blood have the managers and supporters of this inhuman trade to answer for to the common Lord of all!
Bouie: That is—he is legitimately angry, as he should be.
Onion: And he also sneaks a sort of anti monarchical argument in there, too, you know, “tempting Kings to sell subjects, which of course they can have no right to do.” So, you know, it’s not just, this is also—how like a king, to do this?
Bouie: Yes, and it harkens back to his belief in natural law. Right, that Kings cannot do this in part because people can not be sold, just as —period.
Onion: Right. It is what it is.
Also that there’s an anti-English feeling, in general. You know, that if the English are coming into to do this, and of course there were other nations besides the English who were enslaving people in Africa, or participating in this trade—but for Paine, the great thing to say is, you know, “Check out what the English are doing.”
Bouie: So, to loop this back to Elizabeth Freeman, we sort of know that she had heard a public reading of the constitution. Which definitely suggests that some of these ideas were making the rounds in colonial America. What evidence do we have that ideas like Paine’s are making their way around the American landscape?
Onion: One of the best pieces of evidence were the many petitions that enslaved people filed with colonial assemblies, and state assemblies.
Egerton: In the years right before the American Revolution, slaves especially in Massachusetts, began to flood the Colonial Assembly with petitions.
And they began very politely asking for undefined redress. They simply want whites to do something for them. They don’t say what it is, but the demands escalate very quickly.
And the same people are writing these. And they are using natural rights terminology. They’ve been if not reading these pamphlets, they’ve been hearing about these pamphlets, they’ve been, you know, listening at their master’s dinner table while white elites discuss these concepts.
And slaves appropriate these ideas, and it’s really quite astonishing to think that these are human property, by definition, who are petitioning colonial assemblies for some kind of assistance.
And as the 1770s goes on, before the actual start of the revolution, the demands become more specific. We want freedom, we want schools, we want rights for our children. Many of these people making these demands are Africans. In some cases they demand the right to return home to Africa.
And so, it’s interesting to watch just within a few months the way the petitions become more aggressive and more assertive, but I think that’s in part because whites in the streets in their demands towards Britain are becoming more assertive and more aggressive.
Bouie: Rebecca, we have some of these petitions, don’t we?
Onion: We have four and we’ll include a link in the show guide to these.
But we have four that were submitted to various Massachusetts bodies in the 1770s. Three of which are either written by a literate person or someone had helped or something—the language is maybe more refined than you would expect. But they use this same kind of language.
And especially I’m looking at the, quote, “Petition of a Great Number of Negroes,” to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1777, which starts out incorporating the Declaration of Independence, in a lot of ways.
It starts out:
That your Petitioners apprehend that they have, in common with all other Men, a natural and unalienable right to that freedom, which the great Parent of the Universe hath bestowed equally on all Mankind, and which they have never forfeited by any compact or agreement whatever—But they were unjustly dragged, by the cruel hand of Power, from their dearest friends, and some of them even torn from the embraces of their tender Parents, from a populous, pleasant and plentiful Country—and in Violation of the Laws of Nature and of Nation and in defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity, brought hither to be sold like Beasts of Burden, and like them condemned to slavery for Life—Among a People professing the mild Religion of Jesus—A People not insensible of the sweets of rational freedom—Nor without spirit to resent the unjust endeavors of others to reduce them to a State of Bondage and Subjection.
So there’s all that reference to language, but also this sort of needle at the hypocrisy—quite often the word slavery is used in colonial protests against Britain to say, you know, “You would make of us slaves.” These petitioners are saying, “Thank goodness that you know about this!”
Bouie: Right. Right.
In fact, in the very next paragraph, the petitioners even say:
…that every principle from which America has acted in the course of her unhappy difficulties with Great-Britain, pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your Petitioners.
They’re saying that, “Look at the war you guys just fought—our case is way stronger than any case you ever had.”
Onion: Yeah, I mean it’s such a strong argument to us looking at it now.
It’s hard to imagine anyone sort of saying, “Oh well,” you know!?
Now I’m looking at a petition from a person who is only known as Felix, a petition for freedom that was presented to Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of the Massachusetts’ Bay in 1773.
And he sort of pleads both low place and poverty in life, and also the intention to do better. So he says:
We have no Property. We have no Wives. No Children. We have no City. No Country. But we have a Father in Heaven, and we are determined, as far as his Grace shall enable us, and as far as our degraded contemptuous Life will admit, to keep all his Commandments: Especially will we be obedient to our Masters, so long as God in his sovereign Providence shall suffer us to be holden in Bondage.
So that was really interesting to me because, there was a lot of fear that, as we sort of discussed at the top, that there would be rebellions, or revolts, or the language that was going around would inspire some kind of violent action, whether it be an uprising or whether it be going to fight with the British. And so Felix is sort of saying, “Hey listen to me, I think what you’re doing is wrong, but don’t worry, I won’t do anything bad to you. But I do want to redress this wrong,” which is an interesting rhetorical stance to take.
Bouie: So, this is up North, but most of America’s colonial slaves are down South. Were Southern slaves making these kinds of petitions?
Onion: Yes, I asked Doug about that and he said it sort of took some different forms.
Egerton: In Charleston, South Carolina, on the eve of the revolution when whites are protesting the Stamp Act and are talking about liberty, and calling themselves the slaves of King George, you have one famous instance where a number of mostly African slaves in Charleston began chanting “liberty.” They liked the concept. So, it’s not that white animosity toward Britain teaches slaves to be unhappy. Slaves by definition are always unhappy.
But every movement needs someone to come along and give them a voice and articulate demands, and so of course one of the great ironies of the American Revolution is that when whites begin talking about natural rights and call themselves the slaves of King George, it’s natural that slaves in places like Charleston—which is 61 percent black at the time—would think that they deserved liberty, too. It’s the natural right, it’s their natural right as well.
Onion: But, Doug says they didn’t necessarily submit petitions to legislatures. So that while there may have been some protests in various ways, including enlisting with the British, the kind of petition that we just read probably wouldn’t have come to a legislature.
Egerton: They might try, but certainly any slave, especially in South Carolina, would understand that that is a very good way to get into very deep trouble. Slaves can get away with it in Massachusetts because the colony is 97 percent white. They are not terrified of slaves in Boston the way they are in Charleston.
South Carolina is at the time the only colony that has a black majority, and so any slave who would be foolish enough to try to submit a petition calling for any small amount of reform to the South Carolina Assembly would be somebody who at the very least would be whipped, and quite possibly might also simply be executed. So, it would be folly and slaves know that.
Bouie: And how did the natural rights language translate down south, because obviously, some of the loudest American patriots were themselves southerners.
Onion: Doug said the idea of natural rights was interpreted in some interesting ways by people who owned slaves and wanted to continue to do so.
Egerton: Especially in the lower South, which would be Georgia, South Carolina, and to a lesser extent North Carolina—Florida of course remained in Spanish hands—whites don’t see the irony of calling themselves slaves of King George and denying freedom to others.
Especially in the Lower South, whites embrace the Lockean notion of property rights. For planters along the Carolina coast, this is not a revolution of egalitarian rights, this is a revolution of their particular property rights. That includes, unfortunately, the right to own other people as property.
And so it’s kind of the darker side of Lockean theory that takes hold during the American Revolution. The kind of larger notion that this is a revolution that will bring about a kind of Republican utopia, a government of the people, just really doesn’t take hold at all in the lower South, it just has no resonance at all.
Bouie: That is really fascinating. And it seems like you can almost see the seeds here of sectional conflict, not a few generations later.
Onion: You most certainly can.
Bouie: OK, we have all these conversations happening, and all these conversations are spurring action, and all this action isn’t just happening at the level of individual slave, and individual slave owner. It is happening in legislatures; it is happening on the level of law.
And so when we get back to you after this short break, we will be looking at the ways that the law changed, and the arguments about law that happened during this period.
* * *
Bouie: Before the break, we talked about Elizabeth Freeman and all the conversations about natural rights and how they impacted individual slaves and inspired groups of them to petition for their freedom. Now we’re going to look at the laws. How did the laws change? What were the conversations and arguments among lawmakers and other policy makers about the laws?
Onion: I spoke to Emily Blanck, who teaches at Rowan University, and she has written a book that is sort of about the ways that different states went about changing the laws around slavery, or conflicting laws around slavery.
By the way I should mention that she’s such a fan of Elizabeth Freeman that her email address is Mum Bett. So, she seemed like a good person to talk to about this.
The first thing I asked Emily was about the cases that challenged enslavement before Elizabeth Freeman. So she wasn’t the first person to think of mounting a legal challenge to her own enslavement.
Blanck: Before the American Revolution there are almost no cases that are challenging enslavement except in Massachusetts.
These cases are called “freedom suits,” where a slave sues their master for freedom.
The first one is super early, it’s in 1701. Adam sues his master, John Saffin. They’d made an agreement that Adam could earn money and pay for his freedom, and then when the time came Saffin decided not to free him. And one of the great things that came out of this, or one of the significant things that came out of this, was that the judge in the case, who was Samuel Sewall—incidentally he’s the same person who presided over the Salem Witch Trials—but he wrote the first anti-slavery statement by a government official, I think probably in history, and he basically talked about why slavery is bad and what are some of the bad things about slavery, in response to this case.
And then after Adam, between 1701 and the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776, there’s more than 24 cases in Massachusetts.
Now, these cases were really about the illegal enslavement of one person, an individual. So, Jenny Slew sued because her mother was a free woman, in 1765. There are a lot of others like Adam who sued that he had an agreement to pay for his emancipation and then when the time came the owner refused to free the enslaved person. There’s a lot of cases like that, and those cases are really interesting because they would never hold water in any other traditional kind of slave regime. Because in order to sue on the basis of paying for your freedom, it understands that you can own property and that you can have a contract, and Massachusetts was—and New England in general—were unusual in that they would recognize those rights in a slave.
Bouie: These cases just dealt with individual people, but did they change the law at all?
Onion: No, because these cases were just one person saying, “No, I think based on the law that exists, I should not be enslaved.”
There were a few cases before the Revolutionary period with the basic argument that enslavement was against the fundamental law. One was successful, one wasn’t, but neither changed the law because like Elizabeth Freeman’s case they were argued in county courts. Elizabeth ended up having more impact because she was used as a precedent for the higher court.
So, I wanted to ask Emily about what had changed that Elizabeth was able to succeed with this kind of broad argument that had to do with the rightness of the law.
Blanck: The main thing that’s different is that the state constitution is passed in 1780, and that slavery is de facto dying in Massachusetts. The State Constitution is passed with a statement of rights that asserts that all men are born free and equal. And that is paired with this idea of the revolution and the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, that really transform the way a lot of people are seeing slavery and seeing whether it belongs in the “new” Massachusetts or the “new” United States.
Many people in Massachusetts started getting this idea that it doesn’t fit into the American experiment. And generally the patriots, the people that we think of as the leaders of the American Revolution, they do not pay attention to slavery before the American Revolution and during the main parts of the war, but once the war starts winding down we see more attention being brought towards the issue of slavery. In part because I think it’s bubbling up from the bottom.
And the other thing that we have to take into consideration that changes is that the economy of Massachusetts was damaged really badly by the war. And so there’s a lot of competition with white workers for jobs.
So, there’s just this general sense that slavery just does not fit in our society very well. And so, those are sort of the larger societal changes.
Onion: Elizabeth’s case is really important and interesting because she’s one of the first people to sue just on the basis of the constitution, to use that new constitution in her suit. But we should say that it was actually a later case, the Quock Walker case, that went to a superior court and finally made it so that Massachusetts would no longer recognize slavery.
Bouie: What would have happened to Elizabeth’s lawsuit if she had lived some place further south, in some place like South Carolina?
Onion: It probably wouldn’t ever even have gotten off the ground.
Blanck: In a traditional slave society like South Carolina, slaves have almost no legal rights. Between the state and the master, they had the ability to control almost all aspects of the slave’s life. The only places they had any protections would be in terms of their life. So, you technically cannot murder a slave. They offered basic living standards. So, a master must feed and house their slaves. Those are the basic rights that were legally offered to slaves in a traditional society.
They had no standing in court. They could only testify against another slave if that other slave was being found guilty for something. They could not testify against a white person. They could not bring a case up for themselves. They could sue for their freedom, and a white person could represent them to sue for their freedom. And there are four cases in South Carolina during the revolutionary period where slaves sued their masters for freedom through a white representative. In the worst case, the judge decided to just own the slave himself since it wasn’t clear who owned the slave—a little bit of judicial dictatorship—but they didn’t win any of those cases.
Massachusetts developed differently.
First of all, it never relied on slavery the way that South Carolina does, right? South Carolina, their entire economy is based on slavery. In Massachusetts, it’s a pretty peripheral part of their economy. And this allowed them to be more lenient and more open.
Bouie: Was Massachusetts exceptional in that regard?
Onion: There were a lot of ways that the Northern states tried to outlaw slavery through the courts or through legislatures.
Blanck: Well, Pennsylvania is always the most radical in this situation. You know, Massachusetts could not get a legislative law through, right, which really is the stamp of a popular movement, right? Because you have to get representatives of the people to pass a law.
And Massachusetts tried and they failed. And in large part I think they failed because John Adams told the legislatures they can’t pass this law because it wouldn’t look good on the national level.
But Pennsylvania was able to because of their big Quaker population. And the Quakers had been on the record, some of the local Quakers for a hundred years against slavery, and by 1760 all of the Quakers in the Pennsylvania area are against slavery. So, Pennsylvania is definitely the most radical. They are the most radical in almost any element of the American Revolution that there is.
But Massachusetts probably comes pretty close behind there. All of the states that we consider the Northern states look at it, except for New Jersey and to a certain extent New York. New York gets an anti-slavery society right around this time period but they don’t really think about this legislatively for a little while, and New Jersey doesn’t really consider this too much except for some Quakers along the Delaware River. But that’s because New Jersey’s very dependent on agriculture.
The rest of the states all explore this idea because of the same reason, that the American Revolution was making them see a contradiction of owning slaves within this new America. And if you’re not completely invested in slavery to sort of run your economy, it doesn’t seem that big of a—of a challenge to go ahead and free the slaves in order to be morally justified.
Of course, most of these Northern states are going to pass gradual emancipation acts, which are going to be very slow in the way that they actually free them. But they are always a statement that slavery really doesn’t belong in our society.
Bouie: So, Emily mentions “gradual emancipation acts.”
And you know, what those were, instead of someone being emancipated free immediately, the state would say to their owner, you know, “From this period to this period, they are an apprentice, they are beholden to you, but after that period, we’ll essentially wean you off them.”
And then they’re free. For children, it would be something like 18 to 21 years, from their childhood to the beginning of their adulthood, you have them, and then they’re done. And what’s interesting, in the 1850s, Lincoln was sort of a fan of this kind of thing. Of compensated emancipation, of colonization, of ways to sort of end the institution of slavery without making it too hard on the slave owner.
Onion: Yes, so that makes me wonder if Lincoln was looking back at the kinds of legislative action that Northern states took after the Revolutionary War, as sort of a model for his thinking on this subject.
And actually this was one of the things that surprised me the most about looking into this topic, is that, I’m pretty sure in no case was there a law passed that immediately said, “everyone is free.” States passed gradual emancipation acts and in some cases didn’t pass them until much later. So Emily mentioned, for example, that New York passed a gradual emancipation act in 1789, and New Jersey was the last one to pass it in 1804.
And the result of that, with all of the clauses that those acts had, was that there were still slaves in New York in 1827 when the state finally abolished slavery entirely, and in New Jersey there were actually slaves remaining in slavery by the time of the Civil War. Which was kind of amazing of me.
Bouie: It’s really crazy to think of New Jersey as a place that has slavery for its entire antebellum history.
Onion: Yes, in sort of pockets and places, right?
Bouie: Of the Northern states, which of them had the most radical approach toward gradual emancipation?
Onion: Emily did mention that Pennsylvania—good old Pennsylvania, as always—passed an early gradual emancipation act in 1780, and then also there was a provision that said that anyone who brought a slave into the state and stayed more than six months, that enslaved person would be considered free.
She mentioned by way of anecdote that when George Washington was president of the U.S., living in Philadelphia, the capital of the time, he had to actually create a rotating schedule so that his various enslaved servants would be rotated out every six months. Because otherwise he’d just be freeing his servants.
Bouie: Wow. That’s um. That’s some dedication to slavery from George Washington.
For those slaves who were freed in the north under gradual emancipation or otherwise, what was life like for them, like how did they get along? Because, you know, by the Civil War, there were largish communities of free blacks.
Onion: It’s kind of a darker picture than you might want to hope for.
You know, Emily made clear that they couldn’t get a popular legislative act passed for emancipation—this was kind of a judicial fiat. And there’s sort of a popular feeling that they didn’t want free blacks hanging around. So they didn’t want them in their cities, and they especially didn’t want to be a fugitive slave magnet. They didn’t want Boston to be perceived as a place where a slave could leave a plantation and sort of emerge into a community where they could take cover. And of course that did happen to some degree, despite their efforts.
She mentioned that in Massachusetts there’d be lists published in the newspaper, of lists of free blacks who were warned out of the city, or warned to be on their best behavior.
And that’s sort of a dark thing about emancipation.
Bouie: So what’s so interesting about all of this, is that you have slaves in some sense fighting for their freedom at cross purposes, with the people, I guess, officially, air quotes, fighting for their freedom. It’s really striking to me, to see slaves petitioning freedom fighters for their own freedom.
Onion: Yes, and I think if you look at the thousands of people who sort of fled to the English banner, when Lord Dunmore in Britain made a proclamation that if they would come fight for him than they could have freedom—and a lot of people took him up on that. You know, Doug Egerton had something interesting to say about that.
Egerton: Popular culture in movies like Mel Gibson’s The Patriot provide the idea that all Americans—black, white, Native American—were fighting on the same side for the same purpose. And one of the great ironies of the American Revolution is that virtually everybody was fighting for the same cause, they were all fighting for liberty; they just simply weren’t fighting on the same side to get it.
And so, while again the numbers are imprecise, the best data suggest that three-quarters of the Africans and African-Americans who picked up a gun during the American Revolution fought for the British side, fought for the side that white Americans regarded as the side of oppression.
And it’s not that Africans or African-Americans in South Carolina had any false notions about the British. They understood that the British still were running the slave empire. They were concerned about being resold into the Caribbean Islands—Jamaica, Grenada, Barbados, controlled by the British of course into the 1830s as slave colonies. It simply was that to get their liberty, fighting for the redcoats was the only option.
And so it was certainly true that all Americans, regardless of race, wanted freedom and wanted liberty, but the great irony is that a majority of blacks fought on the loyalist side because that was their avenue toward freedom.
And that’s what I think Americans today don’t want to remember.
Bouie: You know, I’ve actually thought about that quite a bit lately, just apropos conversations with friends. I think we had mentioned earlier the story of Washington leaving Pennsylvania so that his slaves would stay slaves. And the New York Times wrote about that and I discussed with friends the irony that you have thousands of slaves fighting for the British for freedom, for freedom from an oppression that is far more dire than anything the colonists faced.
What are your thoughts on all of this, Rebecca?
Onion: I mean, it can be incredibly frustrating to look back on what we now perceive as the incredible hypocrisy of this. And you know, the petition we read earlier, from the —you know, you call yourselves slaves,—it’s good to look at those things and be frustrated, and it’s bad to look at those things and make a movie like The Patriot. It’s just frustrating a lot of the time.
Bouie: It is not necessarily the case that they saw it as hypocritical.
Onion: That seems like a great place to leave off for now.
On the next episode, we’ll be talking about slavery in the early republic.
And we’ll talk about Joseph Fosset, who was one of the Hemingses of Monticello, and was owned by Thomas Jefferson. We’ll be speaking with Annette Gordon-Reed, who wrote an amazing book about the Hemingses of Monticello, and with Heather Andrea Williams, about family separation during slavery and the emotional history of that trauma.
Bouie: And you’ll get to hear me tell at least one awkward story about me being at UVA and hearing people talk about Sally Hemings.