A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Historical Overview

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Chandra Manning, Georgetown University

Slavery existed in the United States even before the United States existed as a nation, but slavery had not always divided northern and southern states from each other. How the United States transformed from a slaveholding to a non-slaveholding nation stands as one of the most dramatic episodes in American history. The transformation was long and painstaking in many ways but abrupt and revolutionary in others. Massachusetts played important, though complicated, roles in the processes that ended slavery in the United States.

In 1776, all thirteen colonies allowed slavery and contained people who disagreed about many things, but most agreed that slavery should be eliminated eventually. They also agreed that white men should enjoy political equality and economic opportunity. After the Revolution, Americans disagreed about how to achieve those ideals. Northern states gradually abolished slavery, but the institution grew in the South.

Massachusetts was among the first to do away with slavery, though the exact ending was and remains a bit murky. Some Bay Staters believed that the Massachusetts State Constitution (1780) banned slavery when it stated that "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness." Yet in practical terms, some state residents continued to hold human property. In the Quock Walker legal case of 1783, Walker (acting within a long tradition of freedom suits) successfully won his freedom in court, and State Supreme Court Justice William Cushing explicitly declared slavery to be incompatible with the Massachusetts Constitution. From then on, slaveholding by Massachusetts citizens was generally regarded as unconstitutional. Yet neither the state constitution nor judicial fiat determined the status of individuals who were slaves in other states if those individuals came to Massachusetts; it was Article IV of the United States Constitution (1787) that answered that question by determining such individuals still to be slaves. Moreover, a convoluted indenture system allowed various forms of servitude to persist for decades, and civil and legal inequality remained facts of life for black Bay Staters. The combined impact of the Massachusetts State Constitution, the Quock Walker Case, the U.S. Constitution, and the lived experience of black Americans illustrates a theme that would remain important in the long story of the end of slavery nationwide: the distinction between eliminating slavery as a legal practice in several states, and the actual attainment of freedom on the part of all enslaved Americans.