3: The Hypocrisy of America’s Revolution

Listen to this episode

S1: Welcome to the third episode of The History of American Slavery, A Slate Academy. My name is Jamelle Bouie. I am a Slate staff writer.

S2: And my name is Rebecca Onion. I’m Slate’s history writer.

S1: In each episode, we’re looking at a different chapter in the history of slavery in America and starting the conversation with the life of a single person. This episode we’re talking about Elizabeth Freeman.

S3: We don’t know Elizabeth Freeman’s exact birthday, but it was probably in 1742. She’s born in Clavering, New York, two enslaved parents whose origins are lost to us as an infant. She was sold to the magistrate and soldier John Ashley in the western Massachusetts town of Sheffield during her enslaved life. She was known as Bet No Last Name. Later, after she had a daughter, she came to be known as Mum Bett. John ashleys house was a place where people talked with great passion about the new ideas in the air. In those revolutionary days of natural law and the ideas of Black Montesquieu and other Enlightenment philosophers attending to ashleys table. Freeman heard discussions of the Sheffield Resolves, which were locally published precursor to the Declaration of Independence and of the new Massachusetts Constitution, which was adopted in 1780. Later, she attended a public reading of Jefferson’s declaration in Sheffield. Freeman wondered why these new ideas didn’t apply to her own life. She came to the conclusion that her enslavement was wrong under Massachusetts new laws.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: After coming into conflict with her mistress one too many times, she left the house and asked an abolition minded lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, to help her sue for freedom. Another enslaved servant in the Ashley House joined her suit. Cedric brought the case to the county court where it succeeded. It became an important precedent to a later superior court case that established the illegality of slavery in Massachusetts. After winning her suit, Mum Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman. The ashleys asked her to come back and serve in their household as a paid servant. She declined and said she worked for the Sedgwick’s the family of her lawyer. She died in 1829 at age 85. Her children inscribed this on her gravestone in the Stockbridge cemetery. She was born a slave and remains a slave for nearly 30 years. She can neither read nor write. Yet in her own sphere, she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty in every situation of domestic trial. She was the most efficient helper in the tenders. Friend. Good mother. Farewell.

Advertisement

S1: In today’s episode, we are talking about the shape of slavery in the revolutionary period, how the Enlightenment ideas that both shaped the revolution and health found in our government also inhibited and encouraged the spread of slavery in the entire United States. And then from there, we’ll talk a bit about the ways in which northern and southern states handled slavery in their courts and in their legal systems. But before we do any of that, we’re going to talk a bit about Elizabeth Freeman. Hi, Rebecca. Hey, Jerome. So that sounds like a really remarkable life. Indeed. Stories like this always make me wonder. You know, we get a lot of movies about the same kind of person, American history, lots of, you know, movies about Founding Fathers, series about or heroes. But we don’t really get to see very many people like her. And I would love to see her movie.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: There are so many ins and outs in her life and there’s so much courage and strength. It would be a great subject for a script.

S1: Why did you choose this story and where did you find it?

S2: You know, it’s funny is I can’t even remember where I came across it. It might actually have been in a Doug Edgerton’s book that one of our guests today that, you know, as soon as I read it, I thought, you know, this is a woman who although she was, you know, nominally on the periphery of life, and Matthew said she also was absorbing everything around her, thinking about everything that was happening. And I, you know, put the new ideas that she was finding out about into practice like quickly and really changed things for people in Massachusetts. I had certain preconception before. I read a lot of the stuff that I read for the series that what happened with slavery during the Revolutionary War. And right afterward, I was always sort of taught that controversy over slavery at the constitutional convention. You know, decisions were made by a bunch of white guys in a stuffy room and they sort of fight over what they were going to put into the charter for the new nation. But the Mumbai case made me think, you know, things were happening on a lot of different levels. There was stuff happening at the local level and people’s conversations like on the street and on their drawing rooms and in the tavern discussions and state legislatures. People are just talking about it everywhere. And of course, it makes perfect sense that somebody like Mumbai, who’s a smart person, who’s around a lot of smart ideas being discussed, would be thinking about it and talking about it and taking action. Did you have preconceived ideas about what happened with slavery during the war?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: I don’t actually think I had any preconceived idea. I mean, partly there’s a product of my own knowledge gaps. My knowledge of slavery really kind of begins after the War of 1812. And I know just from schools, from high school that we kind of talked about slavery in the colonial period is almost an afterthought for me. All of this raises a couple of questions to first. I wonder if white colonials were concerned about what might happen with the revolution in with the institution of slavery. Because, I mean, imagine you have revolution in the air. People are fighting. You know, all sorts of disruption happen. And you have at a certain point, British officials saying, come by for us and you’ll get your freedom. What about those slaves who take that offer seriously? What do colonial, white, colonial Americans think about that? How did they react?

Advertisement

S2: It also really pinpoints the sort of geographical difference between what it meant to be enslaved in the north and what it meant to be enslaved in the south, because you have these ideas circulating in both places and in slave people hearing them and thinking about what to do. But the cases are really different and the consequences for what people do in these different places are really different. That is interesting to me as law.

S5: That’s right. Different people are going to make different kind of calculations about how to achieve their interests and that that includes both people who own slaves and be enslaved themselves. And I’d sort of like to know more about those calculations and those choices.

S6: Yeah, exactly. After the break, we’re going to talk a little bit more about how slavery fit into some of the other intellectual discussions that were going on about the rights of man. Well, Elizabeth Freeman was listening and thinking.

S7: If you want to writes Rebecca and me about this episode, send us an email at History Academy at Slate.com and we’ve launched the private Facebook group just for Academy members. You can find it at Facebook, dot com backslash groups, backslash History Academy.

S8: And this week, we’d especially love to hear from you about one question that we have. We’re thinking of planning an episode about education, the way that slavery is taught in American classrooms. We’d love to hear from you with any memories that you have about the way that slavery was or wasn’t taught in your elementary, middle high school college classrooms. So please come to Facebook.com, slash group, slash history academy and talk to us about that.

Advertisement

S5: There we’re discussing the ideas behind the American Revolution, how they related to slavery. And Rebecca, you discussed this with Doug Edgerton, a professor of history at Lemoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

S9: Doug knows a lot about this subject and he wrote a really good book called Death or Liberty African-American Revolutionary America. I sort of was thinking about what we discussed in the last episode about Quakers in England and their influence on abolitionism. So I asked Doug whether there was a parallel history of anti-slavery thought in the colonies before the revolution.

S10: The first critiques against slavery in century were largely religious, mostly from the Quakers. Benjamin Lee, who was a former resident of English Caribbean who moved to Philadelphia the 17th thirties, began to write essays criticizing slavery simply as a violation of of the brotherhood of man and the love of God. That picked up steam by the 1750s. John Wilborn, another Quaker living in New Jersey, began to speak against slavery. You could argue that Quakers could not be in good standing if they owned their fellow man. Anthony Benz’s in Philadelphia did the same thing. Also in the 1750s, when the black Marriner a lot of Equiano visited Philadelphia during that period, he went to a Quaker meeting house, in part because he’d heard that they were the enemies of slavery. It was, though, interesting critique in that while it was religious and did indeed emphasize brotherhood of all people. Part of it also was simply the Quaker notion that one should live a simple life and therefore having people do labor for you.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S11: It was kind of a violation of that principles.

S12: So did anyone actually listen to the Quakers?

S9: You know, this is actually sort of the same story that we heard in the last episode from Adam Child when he talked about the initial reception of the Quakers in England. Doug said the same thing, that Quakers weren’t really trusted. You know, they weren’t they were a minority. And some of the things that they believed that were unrelated to slavery, for example, they were pacifists. So the French and anymore they weren’t participating. And so their neighbors were inclined to view them with some skepticism.

S13: The idea of Quakers as untrustworthy is Hilarie, though it doesn’t sound right.

Advertisement

S12: So there weren’t just the Quakers in 18th century America. There were also Enlightenment philosophers. What were they saying about slavery?

S9: So yeah, this is something that Dougs I had a much bigger impact.

S10: It wasn’t fact. The economic critique of slavery that I think had a far greater impact than did say that the Quaker Christian critique political philosophers like the brand of Montesquieu, who wrote a very important series of books in the 1748 called The Spirit of the Laws, which was widely read in the colonies. The of modesty was James Madison, favorite political philosopher. People like John Locke, Adam Smith in his book The Variable Sentiments that also criticize slavery on moral grounds, but mostly on economic grounds. It simply was bad economics that did have an impact, probably a greater impact, especially outside of Pennsylvania than did the Quakers, because these were people who were widely read by the intelligentsia in the colonies from from New England down into the south.

Advertisement

S11: Of course, they weren’t reading.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S10: These books, because of their critiques of slavery, they’re mostly reading them for ideas on how to create more perfect governments, the a modest view of courses is the sort of founding father of the idea of checks and balances, but the ideas are there. And so for anyone reading the spirit of the laws or the theory of wall sentiments, you couldn’t avoid that kind of critique of slavery. And because these were critiques made by people who have enormous standing, who are upper class, modestly was a noble. The critics are very staid. They’re not emotional. They’re very logical. It’s that kind of critique that really did have an impact.

S14: You know, the idea that slavery is bad because of bad economics suggested slavery be okay if there are good economics. Put that aside. What does the term bad economics even mean in this period?

S9: So it had to do with the nature of people’s motivation for participating in economic systems.

S10: But Doug explained that in terms of John Locke, for a political philosopher like John Locke, who of course was the poster boy of free wage labor, small government getting out of the way of business for Locke, slavery essentially was was an antiquated mode of labor organization. It was it was feudalism alive again in the 18th century, which is not far wrong. So here, too, there’s particular slavery that is not being made so much in behalf of the slave that that is simply morally wrong to enslave people and steal their labor. Locke’s critique and to a lesser extent Skewes critique, is simply that it’s a clumsy, inefficient and backward way to organized labor in a modern society that that slaves only work hard when they’re correct to do so.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S11: The whole idea, of course, behind Locke’s free wage labor theories is that people work for themselves. What he called enlightened self-interest. People will work harder and therefore the entire society as a whole will benefit. And so if you have large numbers of slaves who are providing labor only grudgingly, Locke would say that that’s a poor way to organize the economy, and that will have a very negative effect on the overall prosperity of of any given society that organizes labor that way.

S15: What about the concept of natural rights? How does that fit into all of this? Because I know I went you v._a. Thomas Jefferson is our mascot, essentially. And I learned quite a bit about the concept of natural rights that the language of natural rights. And so how how did that factor into critiques of slavery? I mean, in the big come from some of the founding fathers themselves who were are steeped in it for sure.

S9: And what was interesting to me was to hear from Doug how that sort of went hand-in-hand with these other pragmatic critiques. But, yes, he did tell me a little bit about natural rights and especially about the power of it, the idea of natural rights.

S10: Is it simply that there were certain things like, of course, characterize this as life, liberty and the pursuit of property? Thomas Jefferson, plagiarize that into life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The idea that these things were given, they could not be denied. They could not be infringed upon by other people, by governments, because they were a concept as natural as is gravity that visibly existed.

S11: It was a given. I mean, that’s what Jefferson says in the declaration. It’s a self-evident truth. Once you announce something is a self-evident truth, then there can be no debate, discussion, disagreement itself, self-evident that simply exists. And so once once Americans started going down that road to simply say they had natural rights, it becomes very, very hard to say. But that’s only for a small segment of the population.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S14: You know, American 18th Century was probably more literate than most places in the in the Western world, but it wasn’t especially literate. How would people who couldn’t even read have even heard of these concepts with these ideas?

S9: Well, that was one of the most interesting things to me about them on that story also was the way that she found out about this stuff. We talked a little bit about how these ideas became public.

S10: The discourse of natural rights was something that by the 1760s, what’s the kind of discourse you cannot get away from? You walk into a tavern in Manhattan and somebody is standing on top of their chair reading Tom Payne and holding a tanker of ale in the other hand. And everybody is listening. It’s just the kind of talk you literally could not escape from. In the 15, 20 years before the American Revolution and of course, everybody who was in these taverns hearing this kind of discourse, it’s not just white men, it’s it’s enslaved domestics, it’s black mariner’s.

S11: And this kind of talk is very empowering.

S15: I’m going to push back against a little bit here. There are political philosophers like Charles Mills who do argue, in fact, that Bhave specifically men this idea for white men and that blacks were excluded almost by design. But that might be a conversation for a different time. Wait, say more about that. Well, I mean, Mills argues that in constructing a social contract, be enlightment, philosophers also kind of construct a related but not. parrello racial contract in which ideas of personhood and individual liberty are talked about in universal terms that are really just meant for white Europeans and that this racial contract provides the basis for justifying slavery in later, for justifying European imperialism.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S9: I’m going to have to read that is the argument that that occurs inside the text or sort of in a parallel set of texts.

S15: If his argument is sort of both that it to some extent incurs within the text, that it occurs within other text by the same authors like John Locke, his day job or something of an anthropologist, and he thought of Africans as being a lesser being into if you merge that in with his thought about natural rights and you have a bit of a contradiction. How do you resolve that contradiction?

S9: I wish that we were talking to Doug right now, but I would love to hear what he had to say about that. But we did talk a little bit about the differences between someone like Thomas Paine, his the way that he argued it and the way that some of the more elite philosophers like Locke argued it near-doubling saying that Thomas Paine was only one of a number of sort of artisan class people at that time. And Whitman called who wrote pro-National Rights and then some anti-slavery pamphlets. If elite Enlightenment philosophers are sort of more qualified and like specific about what they mean, that these writers were much more sort of populist. Yeah, populist. Exactly. And that those people were the writers who were being read in these taverns that he describes. We have this African Slavery in America pamphlet that Thomas Paine wrote. So this is written in 1774 and published in 1775 in the Pennsylvania Journal and The Weekly Advertiser. What did you think of this? He’s very emphatic. Yes. Let’s say it’s very.

S14: And first of all, you know, if you had asked me to identify who wrote this and just told me when it would have written, I would have guessed Thomas Paine, because Thomas Paine is very fond of flowery and emphatic language. And this is here in abundance. But, you know, the thing that really stands up to me is, is in fact, that abundance of he really denounces slavery in words that would sound familiar to say William Garrison. A couple of decades later, there’s a passage where he says so monstrous is making keeping them slaves at all abstracted from the barbarous uses they suffer and the many evils attending the practice as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents and from each other in violation of sacred and natural ties and opening the way for adulteries incest and many shocking consequences for all which the guilty masters’ must answer to the final judge.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S16: That’s like fire and brimstone language for sure. And that word naturale is in there that’s sacred and natural ties. The sense that you have as a human. These rights are being right. Being violated. Yeah. That adulterers and incest thing. Yeah, that surprised me a little bit. And I wonder what that’s about. I think maybe the implication is that if you lose your sense of who your family is in slavery, you lose. You know, I think you see later on that there’s a little bit of a concern about that. Right. That you might end up with your brother or sister or whatever without knowing it.

S17: The thing that used the in this pamphlet for me really was the denouncement of one of the common excuses or apologies for slavery.

S16: Quite often there was an argument that biblically people had enslaved prisoners that they took in war and that that justified to enslave Africans because their enslavement was a result of some kind of conflict that had happened in Africa and that they were being saved basically from being enslaved by their mortal enemies in Africa somewhere.

S13: And Payne says now we’re basically lying like, no, this isn’t true at all.

S18: He says instead, the Majerus, the trade themselves and others testified that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty and lived quietly averse to war before the Europeans dubost them with liquor’s and bribing them against one another. That these inoffensive people are brought into slavery by stealing them, tempting kings to sell subjects which they can have no right to do, and hiring one tribe to war against another in order to catch prisoners by such wicked and inhuman ways.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S16: The English are said to enslave towards one hundred thousand yearly. Of which 30000 are supposed to die by barbarous treatment in the first year. Besides all that, our slain in the unnatural way is excited to take them. So much innocent blood. Have the managers and supporters of this inhuman trade to answer for to the common lord of all who?

S19: That is, he is legitimately angry, as he should be.

S18: Yes. He sneaks a sort of an anti monarchical argument in there, which struck me, too, you know, tempting kings to sell subjects, which, of course, they can have no right to do. It’s not just this is wrong, but also how like a king right to do this.

S19: And it harkens back to his belief in natural law. Right. That he kings can’t do this because people cannot be sold just. Period.

S16: Right. It is what it is. Also, there’s an anti-English in general and of course, there were other nations besides Englishmen who were insulating people in Africa or participating in that train, but for pain. The great thing to say is, you know, check out what the English are doing.

S14: So to loop this back to Elizabeth 3min, we sort of know that she had heard a public reading of the constitution, which definitely suggests that some of these ideas were making the rounds in colonial America. What evidence do we have that right? Ideas like paines are making their way around the American landscape.

S18: One of the best pieces of evidence is the many petitions that enslaved people filed with colonial assemblies and state assemblies.

S11: That was right before the American Revolution. Slaves, especially in Massachusetts, began to flood the colonial assembly with petitions and immediately began very politely asking for UN defined redress. They said they simply want whites to do something for them. They don’t say what it is, but the demands escalate very quickly. They are using natural rights terminology. They’ve been, if not reading these pamphlets, they’ve been hearing about these pamphlets. They’ve been listening at their Masters dinner table while white leaders discuss these concepts and slaves appropriate these ideas. And it’s quite, quite astonishing to think that these are human property by definition, who are petitioning colonial assemblies for some kind of assistance. And as 1770s goes on before the actual start of the revolution, the demands become more specific. We want freedom. We want schools. We want rights for our children. Many do stupid making news demands are Africans. In some cases, they demand the right to return home to Africa. It’s what’s exciting to watch. Just within a few months, the way the petitions become more aggressive and more assertive. But I think that’s in part because whites in the streets, in their demands toward Britain are becoming more assertive and more aggressive.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S19: Rebecca, we have some of these petitions, don’t we?

S18: We have four. And we’ll include a link in the show, Guide to these. We have four that were submitted to various Massachusetts bodies in the 1770s, three of which I think are either written by a literate person or had someone had help or something. The languages may be more refined than you would expect. They use the same kind of language. And especially, I’m looking at the quote, petition of a great number of Negroes, unquote. The Massachusetts has representatives in 1777, which starts out incorporating Declaration of Independence in a lot of ways. It starts that your petitioners apprehend that they have in common with all other men a natural and unalienable right to that freedom which the great parent of the universe hath bestowed equally on all mankind in which they have never forfeited by any compact or agreement whatsoever. But they were unjustly dragged by the cruel hand of power from their dearest friends, and some of them even torn from the embraces of their tender parents, from a populace pleasant and plentiful country, in violation of the laws of nature and of nation, in a defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity brought hither to be sold like beast of burden, and like them condemned to slavery for life among a people professing the mild religion of Jesus, and people not insensible of the sweets of rational freedom, nor without spirit, to resent the unjust endeavors of others, to reduce them to a state of bondage in subjection. So there is all these references to that language, but also this sort of needle at the hypocrisy. Quite often the word slavery is used in colonial protests against Britain to say, you know, you would make of us slaves. You know, these petitioners are saying, thank goodness, we know that you know about this. Right.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S20: In fact, in the very next paragraph, the petitioners even say that every principle from which America has acted in the course of her unhappy difficulties with Great Britain pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your petitioners. They’re saying that, look at the war, you guys just fight. In our case is way stronger than any case you ever had.

S18: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s such a strong argument to us looking at it now.

S13: It’s hard to imagine.

S18: It’s hard to imagine anyone, you know, sort of saying, oh, well, you know, now I’m looking at a petition from person who’s only known as Felix, this petition for freedom that was presented to Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay in 1773. And he sort of pleads both a low place and poverty in life and also intention to do better and says we have no property, we have no wives and no children. We have no city and no country. But we have a father in heaven, and we are determined as far as his grace will enable us and as far as our degraded, contemptuous life will admit to keep all his commandments, especially will we be obedient to our masters so long as God and his sovereign providence shall suffer us to be holding in bondage? So that was really interesting to me because there was a lot of fear, as we sort of discussed at the top, that there will be rebellions or revolts or that the language that was going around would inspire some kind of violent action, whether it be an uprising or whether it be going to fight with the British. And so Felix was sort of saying. Hey, listen to me, I think what you’re doing is wrong. But don’t worry. Like all I won’t do anything bad to you, but I do want you to redress this wrong. Right. Which is an interesting rhetorical stance to take.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S14: So this is up north, but most of America’s colonial slaves are down south. And were southern slaves making these kinds of petitions?

S18: Yes. I asked Doug about that.

S11: He said it sort of took some different forms in Charleston, South Carolina, on the eve of the revolution when when whites were protesting the Stamp Act and are talking about liberty and calling themselves the slaves of King George III. One famous instance where a number of mostly African slaves in Charleston began chanting Liberty. They like the concept. So it’s not that white animosity toward Britain teaches slaves to be unhappy. Slaves, by definition, are always unhappy. But every movement needs someone to come along and give them a voice and articulate demands. And so, of course, one of the great ironies of the American Revolution is that when whites began talking. About natural rights. Call themselves the slaves of King George. It’s natural that that slaves in places like Charleston, which is 61 percent black at the time, would think that they deserve liberty too, if it’s their natural right as well.

S18: But Doug said that they didn’t necessarily submit petitions to legislatures. So while they may have been some protest in various ways, including enlisting with the British, the kind of petition that we just read probably wouldn’t come to a legislature.

S11: They might try it. But certainly any slave, especially in South Carolina, would understand that that that is a very good way to get into very deep trouble. Slaves can get away with it in Massachusetts because the colony is 97 percent white. They are not terrified of slaves. And in Boston, the way they are in Charleston, South Carolina, is at the time the only colony that has a black majority. And so any slave who would be foolish enough to try to submit a petition calling for calling for any small amount of reform would be somebody who at the very least would be whipped and quite possibly, but also simply be executed. So it would it would be folly. And slaves. Slaves know that.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S14: And how did the natural rights language translate down south? I mean, obviously, some of the loudest American patriots were themselves southerners.

S18: Does had some interesting things about the way that the idea of natural rights was interpreted by people who owned slaves and wanted to continue to do so, especially in the lower south, which would be Georgia, South Carolina to a lesser extent, North Carolina.

S11: Florida, of course, remained in Spanish hands. Whites. They’ll see the irony of calling themselves slaves of King George and denying freedom to others, especially in the Lower South. Whites embrace the Lockean notion of property rights for planters along the Carolina coast. This is not a revolution of egalitarian rights. This is a revolution of their particular property rights, and that includes, unfortunately, that the right to own other people as property. And so it’s kind of the darker side of Lockean theory that takes hold during the American Revolution, the kind of larger notion that this is a revolution that will bring about a kind of Republican utopia. Government of the people just really doesn’t take hold at all. And the lower self just has no residents at all.

S21: That is really fascinating. And it seems like you can almost see the seeds here of sectional conflict not a few generations later.

S18: You most certainly can.

S19: OK. We have all these conversations happening and all these conversations are spurring action and orders. And action isn’t just happening on the level of individual slaves and individual slave owners. It is happening in legislators is happening on the level of law. Until we get back to after this short break, we will be looking at the ways the laws change and the arguments about what happened during this period.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S22: You can read an excerpt from Douglas Edgerton’s book, Death or Liberty. African-Americans and Revolutionary America as part of the Slate Academy. Find the link at our show notes or at Slate.com. Slash Academi.

S19: Before the break, we talked about Elizabeth Freeman and all the conversations about natural rights and how they impacted individual slaves, inspired groups of them to petition for their freedom. Now we’re going to look at the laws. How did the laws change? What were the conversations and arguments among lawmakers and other policy people about the laws?

S18: I spoke with Emily Blanck, who teaches at Rowan University, and she has written a book that is about the way that different states dealt with changing the laws are on slavery or conflicting laws or on slavery. By the way, I should mention that she’s such a fan of Elizabeth Freeman that her email addresses Mumbai.

S16: She seemed like a good person to talk to about this. The first thing I asked Emily was about the cases that challenged enslavement before. Elizabeth Freeman says she wasn’t the first person to think of making mounting a legal challenge to her own enslavement before the American Revolution.

S23: There are almost no cases that are challenging enslavement except in Massachusetts. These cases are called freedom suits, where a slave sues their master for freedom. The first one is super early. It’s in 17 01 one. Adam suits his master, John 7. They’d made an agreement that Adam could earn money and pay for his freedom. And then when the time came, Suffern decide not to free him. And one of the significant things that came out of this was that the judge in the case, who is Samuel Sewell, incidentally, he’s the same person who presided over the Salem witch trials. But he wrote the first anti-slavery statement by a government official. I think probably in the history. And he basically talked about why slavery is bad and what what are some of the bad things about slavery. In response to this case and then after Adam, between 17A 1 and the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776, there’s more than 24 cases in Massachusetts. Now, these cases were really about the illegal enslavement of one person, an individual. So Jenny SLU sued because her mother was a free woman in 1765. There are a lot of others like Adam who sued that he had an agreement to pay for his emancipation. And then when the time came, the owner refused to free the enslaved person. There’s a lot of cases like that. And those cases are really interesting because they would never hold water in any other traditional kind of slavery. Shame, because in order to sue on the basis of paying for your freedom, it understands that you can own property and that you can have a contract. And Massachusetts was and New England in general were unusual in that they would recognize those rights in a slave.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S19: These cases just dealt with individual people. But did they change the law at all?

S17: No, because these were just one person saying no. I think based on the law that exists, I am should not be enslaved. There were few cases before the revolutionary period that tried to argue that enslavement was against the fundamental law. One was successful, but one was then. But neither changed the law because actually, like Elizabeth Freeman’s case, they were argued in county courts. And Elizabeth ended up having more impact because she was used as a precedent for the higher court. So I want to ask Emily, what made Elizabeth Freeman’s case different? Why had changed so that she was able to succeed with this kind of broad argument that had to do with the rightness of the law?

S23: The main thing that’s different is that the state constitutions passed in 1780 and that slavery is de facto dying in Massachusetts. The state constitution is passed with a statement of rights that asserts that all men are born free and equal. That is paired with this idea of the revolution and ideas and the Declaration of Independence that really transformed the way a lot of people are seeing slavery and seeing whether it belongs in the new Massachusetts or the new United States. Many people in Massachusetts start getting this idea that it doesn’t fit into the American experiment. And generally, the Patriots know that the people that we think of as leaders of the American Revolution, they do not pay attention to slavery before the American Revolution and during the main parts of the war. But once the war starts winding down, we see more attention being brought towards the issue of slavery, in part because I think it’s bubbling up from the bottom. And the other thing that we have to take into consideration that changes is that the economy of Massachusetts was damaged really badly by the war. And so there’s a lot of competition with white workers for jobs. So there’s just this general sense that slavery just does not fit in our society very well. Those are sort of the larger sort of societal changes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S17: Elizabeth, case is really important and interesting because she was one of the first people to sue just on the basis of the Constitution. But we should say the. Was actually a later case, the Quark Walker case that went to his superior court and finally made it so that courts in Massachusetts would no longer recognize slavery.

S12: What would have happened to Elizabeth Freeman’s lawsuit if she had lived further south in someplace like South Carolina?

S18: It probably wouldn’t never have even gotten off the ground.

S23: So in a traditional slave society like South Carolina, slaves have almost no legal rights between a state and a master. They had to build a control almost all aspects of the slaves life. The only places they had any protections would be in terms of their life. You technically cannot murderously. They offered basic living standards, so a master must feed and house their slaves. Those are the basic rights that were legally offered to slaves in a traditional society. They had no standing in court. They could only testify against another slave. If that other slave was being found guilty for something, they could not testify against a white person. They could not bring a case up for themselves. They could to further their freedom, and a white person could represent them to suit her, their freedom and their four cases. In South Carolina during the revolutionary period where slaves sued their masters for freedom through a white representative. In the worst case, the judge decided to just own the slave himself, since it wasn’t clear if the person who was claiming to own them on them a little bit of a judicial dictatorship. But they didn’t win any of those cases. Massachusetts developed differently. First of all, it never relied on slavery the same way that South Carolina does. Right. South Carolina, their entire economy is based on slavery. Massachusetts is a pretty peripheral part of their economy. And this allowed them to be more lenient, more open.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S15: Was Massachusetts exceptional in my regards?

S9: There are a lot of different ways that the northern states try to either outlaw slavery through the courts or through legislatures.

S23: Well, Pennsylvania’s always the most radical in this situation. You know, Massachusetts could not get a legislative law through. Right. Which really is the stamp of a popular movement. Right. Because you have to get representatives of the people to pass a law. And Massachusetts tried and they failed. And in large part, I think they failed because John Adams told the legislators they can’t pass this law to end slavery because it wouldn’t look good on the national level. But it was very hard for Massachusetts to really get this on a popular level, pass through a legislative body. But Pennsylvania was able to because of their big Quaker population and the Quakers had been on the record. Some of the local Quakers for over a hundred years against slavery and by 1716, all the Quakers in the Pennsylvania area are against slavery. So Pennsylvania’s definitely the most radical, their most radical and almost any element of the American evolution that there is. But Massachusetts probably comes pretty close behind there. All the Staats states that we consider the northern states look at it, except for New Jersey and to some extent New York. New York gets an anti-slavery society right around this time period, but they don’t really think about this legislatively for a little while. And New Jersey doesn’t really consider this too much, except for some Quakers along the Delaware River. But that’s because New Jersey is very dependent on agriculture. The rest of the states all explore this idea because of the same reason that the American Revolution was making them see a contradiction of owning slaves within this new America. If you’re not completely invested in slavery to sort of run your economy, it doesn’t seem that big of a challenge to go ahead and free the slaves in order to be morally justified. Of course, most of these northern states are going to pass gradual emancipation acts, which are going to be very slow in the way that they actually freedom. But they’re always a statement that slavery really doesn’t belong in our society.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S21: So Emily mentions gradual emancipation acts. And you know what? Those were right were instead of someone being emancipated, go free immediately, the state would say to their owner, from this period, in this period, they are an apprentice. They are so they’re so connected to you. But after that period, we’ll see wean you off of them and then they’re free for. For children, it would be some 18 to 21 years from their childhood to the beginning of their adulthood. You have them and then they’re done. And in the end, what’s interesting is that in the 1850s, Lincoln was sort of a phantom, this kind of thing of comity and emancipation, of colonization in the way to sort of like in the institution of slavery without making it too hard on the slave owners.

S24: Yes. It that makes me wonder whether Lincoln might not have been looking back at the kinds of legislative actions that northern states took after the Revolutionary War as sort of a model for his thinking on this subject. And this actually was one of the things that surprised me the most about looking into this topic. Is that in pressure? OK. Was there a law passed that immediately said everyone is free? States passed gradual emancipation laws and some states didn’t even pass them until much later. Emily mentioned that. For example, New York State passed a gradual emancipation act in 1799 and New Jersey with the last one to pass it in 1884. And then the result of that. You know, with all the different clauses that those acts had was that there were still slaves in New York in 1827 when the state finally abolished slavery entirely. And in New Jersey, they were actually slaves remaining in slavery by the time of the Civil War, which was kind of amazing to me.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S14: It’s really it’s really crazy to think of New Jersey as being a place that had slavery for, you know, its entire antebellum history.

S18: Yes. In sort of pockets and places. Right. Right.

S20: Of the of the northern states, which of them were the most radical approach towards gradual emancipation?

S24: I’m I did mention that Pennsylvania. Good old Pennsylvania, as always, is a place where there is both an early passage of gradual emancipation in 1780. And then also she mentioned that there was a provision saying that anyone who brought slave into the city and state more than six months, that slave person would be considered free. You know, she she mentioned by way of anecdote that, you know, George, when George Washington was president of the US, living in Philadelphia, the capital, at the time, he had to actually create a rotating schedule so that his various enslaved servants would be rotated out every six months. Otherwise, he’d be just free freeing his servants.

S19: Well, yes, that’s some dedication to slavery from George Wallace. Yeah. You know, for those enslaved people who were freed in the north under gradual emancipation or otherwise, what was life like for them? You know, by the Civil War, there were large or largest communities of free blacks.

S24: It’s kind of a darker picture than you might want to hope for. Emily made sure to make clear that in Massachusetts, they couldn’t get a popular legislative act passed for emancipation. This was sort of a judicial fiat kind of thing. And there is a popular feeling that they didn’t want free black people hanging around. So they didn’t want them in their city. And they, especially, as you mentioned, didn’t want to be a fugitive slave magnet. So they didn’t want Boston to be perceived as a place where a slave could leave a plantation and emerge into a community where they could take cover. Of course, that did happen to some degree. Despite their efforts, you know, she mentioned that in Massachusetts, there be lists published in the newspapers of free blacks who were warned out of the city or sort of told to be on their best behavior.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S21: What’s so interesting, but all of this is that you have you have slaves in some states fighting for their freedom across purposes with the people, I guess officially air quotes fighting for their freedom.

S20: It’s really striking to me to see slaves petitioning freedom fighters for their own freedom.

S18: There’s also, if you look at the thousands of enslaved people who sort of fled to the English manor when Laura Dunmore in Virginia made a proclamation that they would come fight for him, then they could have freedom. And a lot people took him up on that.

S11: You know, Doug Egerton had something interesting to say about that popular culture and movies like Mel Gibson’s The Patriots provide the idea that that all Americans, black, white, Native American, we’re fighting on the same side for the same purpose. And so while, again, the numbers are imprecise, that the best data suggests three quarters of the Africans and African-Americans who picked up a gun during the American Revolution fought for the British side plus of the side that that white Americans regarded as the side of oppression. It’s not that that Africans or African-Americans in South Carolina had any false notions about the British. They understood that the British still were running the slave empire. They were concerned about being resold into the Caribbean islands to make a Grenada Barbados controlled by the British slave colonies. It simply was that to get their liberty, fighting for the redcoats was going to be the only option. So it’s certainly true that all Americans, regardless of race. Everybody wanted freedom and was fighting for the same cause. They were all fighting for liberty. But the great irony is that a majority of blacks fought on the loyal side because that was their avenue toward freedom. And that’s what I think Americans today. Don’t want to remember it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S25: It’s easier to simplify the story, to utterly fictionalize it in movies like The Patriot, you I’ve actually thought about that quite a bit recently, just apropos of conversations I’ve had with friends. We had mentioned earlier the story of George Washington leaving Pennsylvania with the slaves to make sure that they stayed slaves. And there is a New York Times piece about that.

S12: And a friend and I talked about this and sort of talked about the irony that Doug touches on that you have thousands of black Americans fighting for the British for freedom and for freedom from an impression that is far more dire than even the colonists faced.

S21: What what what what are your thoughts on all of this, Rebecca?

S18: I mean, it can be incredibly frustrating to look back at the what we now perceive as the incredible hypocrisy of this. And, you know, that petition that we read earlier from the slave people who are saying, you know, you call yourself a slave, you know, that is almost an an offense to someone who actually is in that condition, almost invented more than an offense. And I think it’s good to look at those things and be frustrated. And it’s bad to look at those things that make a movie like the Patriot Act. So I think a lot of the issue with looking at this history is that it’s just frustrating a lot of the time. Right. There’s so much hypocrisy and there’s so much willful on understanding, I guess, or willful irrationality. But I guess the only thing we can do is talk about it.

S12: Right. That’s that’s a fact. The only thing we can do is talk about it and to try to understand it both on its own terms and in the terms of the people who experienced it. Peter’s not necessarily the case. A baseball.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S25: It hypocritical, though, as we saw, many of them were very clear and very clear eyed on the hypocrisy of their fight for freedom while they live in a place of slavery.

S18: That seems like a great place to leave off for now, on the next episode, we’ll be talking about slavery in the early republic and we’ll be talking about Joseph Fossett, who is one of the Hemingses of Monticello and is owned by Thomas Jefferson. We’ll be speaking with Annette Gordon-Reed, who wrote an amazing book about the Hemingses of Monticello and with Heather Andrea Williams, who wrote a book about family separation during slavery and the emotional history of that trauma.

S15: And you’ll get to hear beat hell at least one awkward story about being at UVA and hearing people talk about Sally Hemings.

S7: Until then, though, I’m Jamelle Bouie. And I’m Rebecca Onion. And this is the history of American slavery. The Slave Academy. We’ll see you soon.

S22: You can read an excerpt from Emily blanc’s book, Turana Side Forging an American Law of Slavery and Revolutionary South Carolina and Massachusetts as part of the Slate Academy. Find the link at our show notes or at Slate.com. Slash Academi. Want to prepare for episode four of the Academy? You can read ahead, Rebecca and Jamal will talk to Heather Andrea Williams about the brutal ways in which slavery tore families apart and the efforts and slave families made to reunite. Find an excerpt from Heather’s book, Help Me to find My People in our show. Notes are at Slate.com. Slash Academi.