Local Antislavery Action
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
Years before judicial review ended slavery in Massachusetts, groups of slaves, freedmen, and abolitionists, came together in different ways to actively protest slavery. From anti-Slavery meetings to runaway slaves, here are a few early actions taken against the disenfranchising system.
Before juries started to favor freeing slaves and enslavement was frowned upon by the majority of society, the most direct way that slaves could free themselves from bondage was by running away. The document below highlights a specific case where sailors reported an escaping slave by the name of Pompey who had boarded their ship leaving from Plymouth. Citing mistreatment as the inciter, he had climbed on board at midnight on October 7, 1724.
In another such example, William Park documents the property loss and expenses he had to deal with after Sylvanus Warro, one of his slaves, escaped and stole from him to support his child. In the court sworn affidavit, he speaks to the 40 pounds stolen, Warro’s tenure in his service, and the damages the search has caused him. Unfortunately, as with many accounts of the time, this very polarized perspective only shows one side of the account, regardless of it being sworn under oath. His references to a bastard child and unfaithful service highlight how even in loss, Park was holding a significantly higher amount of privilege.
In the early 1770s, groups of white abolitionists, freedmen, and slaves would come together to draft legal petitions to end slavery with the reasoning that freedom was a universal right. In one such petition, in June of 1773, a group of slaves drafted a plea to Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson on the grounds that they should be treated equally with white citizens, stating, “your Petitioners apprehend they have in common with other men a natural right to be free and without molestation.”
While many of these efforts were initially unsuccessful, they collectivized support for the abolitionist movement and laid the foundation for later anti-slavery meetings to protests against the institution in the age of the civil war. Petitioning may not have convinced the governor, but similar formats would later be channeled into national calls to end slavery.
This document was one such meeting that rallied for support of the antislavery movement in the decade before the civil war in Weymouth, MA.
Occasionally, a slave was able to successfully sue their owner for freedom. In the 1690s, Adam, a slave of the Bostonian merchant John Saffin, sued his master on the grounds that he had violated an agreement to free him after seven years in his service. Saffin acknowledges the agreement, saying in court documents, “I say I doe [do] by these presents of my owne [own] free & voluntary [voluntary] will.” However, Saffin argues that Adam didn’t uphold his end of the deal to be an “ honest [honest] true and faithful [faithful] Servant” and therefore, Saffin shouldn’t need to free him.
This document, signed by Saffin in 1694 for the court, details his claims as to why he is not required to free Adam.
The court proceedings in this case allegedly inspired The Selling of Joseph, the first anti-slavery passage published in New England in 1700. The author, Samuel Sewall, bashes common supporting arguments of slavery with the Bible, supporting his argument with the story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers. The basis of his claim, “Naturally, there is no such thing as Slavery.”
The only surviving original copy of the Selling of Joseph found on the Massachusetts Historical Society website. The essay contextualized slavery both in terms of race and religion, arguing for abolition decades before the movement received widespread support.
Through both the actions of courageous individuals and collective groups, early anti-slavery action introduced and engaged the greater New England community with the tenets of the abolitionism movement. It was these petitions and pursuits which ultimately developed the legal foundation and socio-political support for the legal proceedings that would outlaw slavery in Massachusetts.