J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Samuel Adams’s Servant Surry

William V. Wells’s The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, published by Little, Brown in three volumes in 1865, offers this description of one member of the Adams household:

The black servant girl, Surry, was presented to [the second] Mrs. [Elizabeth] Adams by Mrs. Checkley [the first Elizabeth Adams’s mother or sister] about the year 1765, and, having been freed by Mr. Adams, lived with the family for nearly half a century. Surry never left Boston but twice, which was during the British occupation, and when the small-pox prevailed in town during the administration of Governor Adams.

She served every member of the household with an affectionate devotion, which nothing could change. When the institution of slavery was formally abolished in Massachusetts, though she had long been free, additional papers were made out for her: but she threw them into the fire, indignantly remarking that she had lived too long to be trifled with in that manner.
So what does this portrait say about Samuel Adams’s views on slavery? The challenge is that Wells isn’t unbiased: he was an Adams descendant, writing at the end of the Civil War when slavery had become very unfashionable, so he had every reason to downplay his ancestors’ participation in that system.

Wells probably thought the story of Surry destroying her emancipation papers reflected well on Samuel and Elizabeth Adams—they were such nice people their once-enslaved servant never wanted to leave. But it can also prompt us to ask why they gave Surry emancipation papers after 1783 if they’d already legally freed her.

TOMORROW: And why would Surry have destroyed those freedom papers?

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