The Colonial Society of Massachusetts
Graduate Student Forum in Early American History
I write to submit a proposal for the Graduate Student Forum in Early American History to be held by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. My dissertation, entitled “To be Faithful Good Soldiers: Slavery, War, and Emancipation in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts, 1713-1783” follows the experiences of enslaved and free black soldiers who fought in the imperial and revolutionary wars of the eighteenth century. The project is divided into two interconnecting halves. The first, covering the years 1713-1763, follows the lives of the first black soldiers to serve in Massachusetts’ provincial military forces. The second section focuses tightly on the Revolutionary War, where I closely analyze the fine-grain fabric of life in the Continental Army to argue that the war offered enslaved and free Africans unprecedented opportunities to engage with an emerging national consciousness. Throughout these two sections, I argue that war’s omnipresence in both white and black lives acted as a powerful transformative force in the eighteenth century. For blacks, war provided the quickest path to participation in the revolutionary worlds of the eighteenth century. At the same time, war shaped white perceptions of slaves as well as the institution of slavery itself. These two interlocking themes weave through each chapter of the dissertation.
With that in mind, I often turn to one particular portion of the manuscript record for the town of Boston. In April 1723, the Boston town meeting debated the provisions of a code drawn up by the Selectmen “for Regulating the Indians Negros and Molattos in this Town.” The fifteen articles contained in the proposed code noir sought to control all aspects of slaves’ public and private lives. The articles prohibited slaves from walking about town after dark, from purchasing liquor, and made it a crime to “Carry about him any manner of armes” including clubs, staves, or canes (although the town had enough compassion to excuse “decriped” slaves from this last provision.) Punishments varied from “severe Whippings,” to imprisonment in the town’s House of Correction, to the threat of being “sent beyond the sea.” Although absent any provisions granting slaveowners complete power over the lives and limbs of their slaves, the Boston code of 1723 bore striking similarities to those adopted by southern plantation colonies during the course of the eighteenth century. 1
Bostonians’ concerns about African behaviors encompassed free as well as enslaved blacks. Several of the articles were devoted to limiting the ability of the town’s small population of free blacks to associate with slaves. Blacks were prohibited from assembling in public places--the penalty for two or more Africans discovered “idling or lurking” anywhere in the town was a severe whipping. Likewise, freemen who were discovered inviting “any Indian Negro or Molatto Servant or Slave into His House” were to be whipped and sent to the House of Correction. Free blacks were prohibited from owning firearms or attending training days on the common. Since African men had been prohibited from training with the provincial militia since the late-seventeenth century, this last provision was presumably aimed at preventing free blacks from observing the methods involved in military drill and instruction. But most appalling was the provision requiring free blacks in Boston to “bind out, all their Children” until they reached twenty-one years of age. And to enforce these laws, “any two free holders” in Boston were authorized enter the houses of free blacks in order to search for transgressors. All told, it was a remarkably authoritarian and oppressive piece of legislation.
Once the Selectmen had read the articles to the assembly “sundry times over” and the townsmen had debated each in turn, the meeting voted to send the code to its representatives in the legislature with instructions to “Endeavour that a Bill or Bills may be Passed for the Regulating Indians Negros and Molattos in this Town.” In June, Elisha Cooke, the town’s senior representative, duly introduced a bill on the subject to the House of Representatives. For the next six months, the provincial legislature debated, rejected, revived, and amended the bill before deciding in December not to pass its provisions into law.2
On its surface, the Boston slave code seems out of place within the story of slavery in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Massachusetts—not generally a region known for its dread of slave insurrection or hostility towards African peoples. Indeed, Massachusetts seems to have had an ambiguous relationship with slavery throughout the course of the century, exemplified by the fact that Samuel Sewall, the man responsible for writing The Selling of Joseph, the first anti-slavery tract published in North America, was still living in Boston and participating in town affairs. Why, then, did Bostonians feel the need to enact such draconian regulations?3
The historical context surrounding the April 1723 town meeting is certainly important. The town had been moved to act on the perceived threat after a rash of fires had broken out in the homes and warehouses of the some of the town’s elite. Bostonians feared arson to be the cause and--worse--that the flames had been kindled by an unknown number of “villanous & desperate Negroes.” The epidemic of fires dominated the town’s newspapers for months, and the Boston News-Letter reported that Elisha Cooke, the Boston representative who introduced the proposed slave code to the legislature, had lost a warehouse to the flames. And although no one died in the conflagrations, white Bostonians were terrified by the thought that they might burn to death in their beds. The same town meeting that hoped to better regulate slaves also instituted a nightly town watch and adopted a plan to conduct regular patrols after dark. The governor issued a proclamation offering a reward of fifty pounds to any of “his Majesty’s good subjects” who assisted in the identification and capture of any suspects. Is it possible to suggest that the Boston slave codes were the product of a brief brush with mass hysteria in April 1723? 4
Along those lines, is it also possible to connect the public hysterics of 1723 and subsequent slave code not only to the suspected arson conspiracy but also to the Indian war which simultaneously erupted along the province’s northern frontier? Threatened by an increasing white presence in the Province of Maine, members of various Abenaki tribes had begun raiding and burning settlements in Penobscot Bay the previous summer. Reports of violent acts perpetrated by both sides were common news items in Boston between in the winter and spring of 1723. Significantly, the edition of the Boston News-Letter which contained the first reports of potential arson scheme also devoted significant coverage to news of violence and fighting in the Penobscot region. In effect, Bostonians saw the frightening violence of the frontier juxtaposed with potential slave rebellion in their own backyards. 5
Finally, it is worth questioning why the Massachusetts legislature did not adopt the slave code presented by the Boston town meeting in June 1723. Certainly, the preconditions for the adoption of such stringent racial laws seem perfect: an increase in slave importation, a rise in black population, the perceived threat of slave rebellion, and the very real terror of an urban fire, all combined within the larger context of a violent and potentially devastating Indian war. Indeed, when faced with similar conditions, other colonies reacted with harsh measures regulating slave lives. For example, in the wake of a failed slave uprising in 1712, the New York legislature enacted a comprehensive set of laws aimed at curbing slave independence. And in the wake of the Stono Rebellion of 1739, South Carolina elites adopted strict measures regulating the lives of the enslaved. Why then did Massachusetts legislators balk when confronted with these factors? And how does this brief episode fit into the larger narrative of slavery and race in eighteenth-century Massachusetts? 6
I hope to use the discussion at this year’s Graduate Student Forum to figure out how best to analyze these and other questions about the relationship between war and slavery in colonial Massachusetts.
1 The quotes in this and the following paragraph are from the text of the slave code included in the minutes for the Boston Town Meeting of April 19, 1723 and printed in Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, Containing the Boston Records From 1700 to 1728 (Boston: Rockwell & Churchill, 1883), p. 173.
2 The bill’s legislative history can be found in the Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 1723-1724 (Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1924), pp. 18, 36, 43, 48, 114, 121, 138, 145, 258, 259, 264, 274, 286, and 292.
3 For background on Sewall, see Mark A. Peterson, “The Selling of Joseph: Bostonians, Antislavery, and the Protestant International, 1689-1733,” Massachusetts Historical Review, vol. 4, Race & Slavery (2002), pp. 1-22.
4 For a brief sampling of newspaper coverage of the fires, see The New England Courant, April 22, 1723, April 25, 1723, and July 8, 1723; and the Boston News-Letter, April 28, 1723, May 16, 1723, and October 18, 1723. The governor’s proclamation appeared in the Boston News-Letter, April 18, 1723.
5 Boston News-Letter, April 4, 1723. For the Abenaki War (often called Dummer’s War), see Kenneth Morrison, The Embattled Northeast: the Elusive Ideal of Alliance in Abenaki-Euramerican Relations (Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 1984).
6 For the 1712 rebellion in New York, see Graham Russell Hodges, Root & Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999 and Kenneth Scott, “The Slave Insurrection in New York in 1712,” New York Historical Society Quarterly 45 (1961), 43-74; for the Stono Rebellion see Peter Charles Hoffer, Cry Liberty: The Great Stono River Slave Rebellion of 1739 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).