Northern Slavery

2010-10-05 08:44


For John Winthrop his appointment in 1630 as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a financial, social, and political boon. He was out of a job as an attorney at the Court of Wards and was accruing debts rapidly. His young second son, the aggressive Henry, had been unable to make a success of his venture in Barbados, and was now back in England looking to his family for help.

The image of the family led by the patriarch has been well managed by later descendants who sought, as Robert C. Winthrop did in the late 1800s, to paint the family with the lofty aim to inhabit the new land, living there with a profound ambition of self-rule. In fact, the family's purpose was initially and afterward strictly a matter of business, personal advancement, and the accrual of wealth and maintenance of status.

After arriving in the colony, the elder Winthrop quickly learned that in practical terms he had to increase his efforts to encourage his Puritan co-religionists to come along, as C.S Manegold writes in her excellent new book, "to build a refuge for the religiously oppressed, escape England's corrupt and teeming population, and take and settle a new land." All this was cloaked in a religious challenge of which Winthrop appointed himself spiritual leader to accompany his administrative appointment as governor.

These elements set the scene for all that followed: the introduction of slavery by the signing of the "Massachusetts Body of Liberties" in 1641 was a masterful exercise in legal hypocrisy. There never should be bond slavery (item 91), the document stated -- unless:

It is calculated that 1,200 Indians were enslaved before the end of the 1600s as well as an estimated 200 to 400 Africans, depending on the source. The pre-Revolutionary War census of Massachusetts in 1765 listed the number of black slaves as 5,779. These figures apparently do not include the Africans and Indians transshipped as cargo to the West Indies, the commerce that continued after the post-war emancipation to satisfy the supposed "equality of all." Approximately 5,000 slaves were quietly freed after the Revolution in Massachusetts in belated recognition of the state constitution's claim: "All men are born free and equal…" which, according to Manegold, when written in 1780, had no "intention to liberate all slaves…"