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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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Assessing the Revolution’s Effect on Slavery in New England

Even though most New Englanders went into the Revolution and Revolutionary War with no thought of changing chattel slavery, the ideology of liberty and natural rights produced new thinking.

In the ten years before the war we can see hints of the system breaking down. The number of enslaved people in Massachusetts stopped growing with the overall population. Advertisements in newspapers offered to give away small children; as horrific as that sounds, it indicates the economics of slaveholding looked poor. The first anti-slavery pamphlets in decades appeared shortly before the war.

The departure of wealthy Loyalists, first from their rural homes and then from Boston in 1776, left some enslaved people at liberty. It also cut the number of local elite voices defending their investment in human property since the new wealthy arising during the war didn’t have such a history of slaveholding.

In New York and the southern states, the British were able to organize companies of black troops and support personnel from slaves who had freed themselves. But they couldn’t do that in Boston or Newport. Instead, it was the Continental Army that formed two Rhode Island regiments made up largely of black and Native men.

Even more important, from the start of the war, New England regiments enlisted black men alongside whites. The Rhode Islanders were eventually dispersed among other regiments that way as well. For a sizable number of enslaved New England men, serving in the Continental Army was a path to freedom, not serving the British army.

In 1777 the settlers who came to Vermont from New England decided that there would be no slavery in their new independent state. In 1783 the Massachusetts high court decided that state’s new constitution rendered slavery unenforceable. New Hampshire quickly followed. Connecticut and Rhode Island enacted gradual emancipation laws—very gradual—in 1784.

To be sure, those forms of abolition didn’t produce fair outcomes. Some former slaveholders used the law to justify not supporting older people who had worked for them without pay for years. People remained legally enslaved in southern New England until the eve of the Civil War. The region’s economy remained bound up with slave societies to the south.

Nonetheless, in this significant part of the new U.S. of A., the Revolution had strongly contributed to slavery’s end. So can we say that was a major effect of the Revolution?

I decided to look at the numbers. In 1765 the provincial census counted about 5,200 black people in Massachusetts, including Maine. The breakaway government found about the same number in 1776. The first U.S. census of 1790 counted 5,369 non-white citizens. A significant fraction of those people were already free before the Revolution, but that’s the maximum number of people in Massachusetts freed by the state court. The corresponding number for the state of New Hampshire was 630.

Meanwhile, in the 1780s and ’90s the port of Charleston, South Carolina, imported about 2,000 enslaved Africans each year, on top of children born into slavery. Thus, every three years the new American republic absorbed more people into life as slaves than the total freed by the northern New England abolitions. As positive as the effects of the Revolution were in some states, the strong overall trend of the new nation was toward enslaving more people, even before the cotton economy took over.

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