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Massachusetts was the first colony in New England with slave ownership and was a center for the slave trade throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. No legislation was passed that abolished slavery until the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 was ratified by the state. Technically it remained legal until the end of the Civil War, but as an institution largely died out in the late 18th Century through judicial actions litigated on behalf of slaves seeking manumission. These court cases, starting in 1781, heard arguments contending that slavery was a violation of Christian principles and also a violation of the constitution of the commonwealth. 1783 saw additional high prifile court cases that began a general trend of slaves winning their emacipation on a case by case basis through lawsuit. As slavery dwindled in the last decade of the 18th century in Massachusetts, many of the instances where it remained, the slaveholders sometimes applied semantics of a name change to indentured servitude to maintain their property. The 1790 federal census, however, listed no slaves. A reflection of Massachusetts as a center for the abolition movement in the 19th century.
The exact date of the first African slaves in Massachusetts is unknown, but may have been as early as 1624 by a man named Samuel Maverick. The first confirmed account of slavery in the colony came in 1638 when several native prisoners taken during the Pequot War were exchanged in the West Indies for African slaves. Such exchanges become common in subsequent conflicts.
Most of the 17th century slave trade in New England was based in Massachusetts, however, direct attempts were not successful until the latter half of the century. In 1676, Boston ships began working with slave traders in Madagascar and by 1678 were selling slaves to Virginians. As for slaves imported to Massachusetts, operators preferred to trade Africans for more experienced slaves in the West Indies. Some Africans unsuitable for work in the West Indies were also brought to Massachusetts for sale. Boston ships were selling slaves to Connecticut by 1680 and Rhode Island by 1696.
The slave population in Massachusetts was under 200 in 1676, 550 in 1708 and 2,000 by 1715. Slaves accounted for 2.2% of the total population from 1755 to 1764, their highest rate. There was a larger free black population, with about 10% of the population of Boston being black in 1752.
By the mid-18th century, enslavement of Africans had become common practice in Massachusetts. A 1754 census listed nearly 4500 slaves in the colony. abolitionist sentiment had been growing, especially as the philosophical underpinnings of independence and democracy became common parlance in the colony. While Massachusetts had derived wealth from the Triangle Trade, its merchant and mixed economy was not dependent on slave labor to the extent of southern states.
There were three trials related to these events, two civil and one criminal. These took place during the American Revolutionary War, when language about the equality of people was in the air and after the new Massachusetts constitution had been passed in 1780. The civil cases were : Jennison v. Caldwell (for "deprivation of the benefit of his servant, Walker"), apparently heard and decided first, and Quock Walker v. Jennison (for assault and battery), both heard by the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas on June 12, 1781.
In the first case, Jennison argued that Caldwell had enticed away his employee Walker. The court found in his favor and awarded him 25 pounds.
"As to the doctrine of slavery and the right of Christians to hold Africans in perpetual servitude, and sell and treat them as we do our horses and cattle, that (it is true) has been heretofore countenanced by the Province Laws formerly, but nowhere is it expressly enacted or established. It has been a usage -- a usage which took its origin from the practice of some of the European nations, and the regulations of British government respecting the then Colonies, for the benefit of trade and wealth. But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses-features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal -- and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property -- and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature, unless his liberty is forfeited by some criminal conduct or given up by personal consent or contract ..."
The jury freed Walker. Because, Justice Cushing held that perpetual servitude is unconstitutional under the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, no further action by the Great and General Court, which is the formal name of the Massachusetts state legislature, was needed to end slavery in Massachusetts.
The Walker case was opened by the attorney considering the question of whether a previous master’s promise to free Walker gave him a right to freedom after that master had died. Walker's lawyers argued that the concept of slavery was contrary to the Bible and the new Massachusetts Constitution (1780). The jury voted that Walker was a free man under the constitution and awarded him 50 pounds in damages.
Both decisions were appealed. Jennison's appeal of Walker's freedom was tossed out in September 1781 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, either because he failed to appear or because his lawyers did not submit the required court papers. The Caldwells won the other appeal; a jury concurred that Walker was a free man, and therefore the defendants were entitled to employ him.
In September 1781, a third case was filed by the Attorney General against Jennison, Commonwealth v. Jennison, for criminal assault and battery of Walker. In his charge to the jury, Chief Justice William Cushing stated, "Without resorting to implication in constructing the constitution, slavery is…as effectively abolished as it can be by the granting of rights and privileges wholly incompatible and repugnant to its existence." This has been taken as setting the groundwork for the end of slavery in the state. On April 20, 1783, Jennison was found guilty and fined 40 shillings.
The state never formally abolished slavery until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. Legislators were unable or unwilling to address either slave-owners' concerns about losing their "investment", or white citizens' concerns that if slavery were abolished, freed slaves could become a burden on the community. Some feared that escaped slaves from elsewhere would flood the state.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court decisions in Walker v. Jennison and Commonwealth v. Jennison established the basis for ending slavery in Massachusetts on constitutional grounds, but no law or amendment to the state constitution was passed. Instead slavery gradually ended "voluntarily" in the state over the next decade. The decisions in the Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker trials had removed its legal support and slavery was said to end by erosion. Some masters manumitted their slaves formally and arranged to pay them wages for continued labor. Other slaves were "freed" but were restricted as indentured servants for extended periods. By 1790, the federal census recorded no slaves in the state.
A 1641 law linked slavery to Biblical authority and created a set of rules for slaves. A 1703 law required owners to post a bond for all slaves to protect towns in the case that a slave became indigent should the master refuse to continue caring for him or her.