Massachusetts Recognizes Slavery Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Massachusetts Bay Colony adopted a formal code of laws known as the Body of Liberties. A provision in the code designed to set limits upon slavery in the colony indirectly granted legitimacy to the practice, thereby inaugurating the institution of slavery in the British colonies.

Summary of Event

From its outset, the Massachusetts Bay Colony Massachusetts Bay Colony;slavery in endorsed the idea of unfree labor. The original colonists brought with them 180 indentured servants. Indentured servitude Subsequent food shortages led to the surviving servants being set free in 1630. Unfree labor, however, continued on a private basis, and some white criminals were made slaves to court-appointed masters. Captives from the Pequot War of 1636-1637 were enslaved. Some of these captives were subsequently transported to a Puritan enclave off the coast of Nicaragua, and black slaves were introduced from that enclave to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony, however, remained without a formal endorsement of slavery until the promulgation of a legal code called the Body of Liberties in 1641. Law;Massachusetts Bay Colony [kw]Massachusetts Recognizes Slavery (Nov., 1641) [kw]Slavery, Massachusetts Recognizes (Nov., 1641) Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov., 1641: Massachusetts Recognizes Slavery[1410] Social issues and reform;Nov., 1641: Massachusetts Recognizes Slavery[1410] Government and politics;Nov., 1641: Massachusetts Recognizes Slavery[1410] Trade and commerce;Nov., 1641: Massachusetts Recognizes Slavery[1410] American Colonies;Nov., 1641: Massachusetts Recognizes Slavery[1410] Slavery;Massachusetts Bay Colony Body of Liberties

The Body of Liberties was controversial in many respects. It evolved out of the gradually weakening authority of Governor John Winthrop Winthrop, John and his first Board of Assistants and the emergence of the General Court as a representative body of freemen. The document was crafted and adopted by Elizabethan men who had grown up in the age of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. They were not democrats, but they had a strong sense of destiny and a healthy fear of absolute authority. In a larger sense, the document came to reflect the classic and ancient struggle between church and state.

In 1635, the General Court had appointed a committee to draw up a body of laws codifying the rights and duties of the colonists. This committee stalled over the church-state conflict, however, and another committee was impaneled in 1636. John Cotton Cotton, John sat on the new committee. Cotton was a devout churchman who envisioned a government based on the theocracy of Israel and drafted a document that derived much of its authority from Scripture. Cotton did, however, believe in limitations on authority. He also resisted adopting biblical statutes wholesale. Winthrop, who was lukewarm to the entire idea, called Cotton’s code “Moses his Judicialls.”

Cotton’s counterpart in drawing up the code was Nathaniel Ward Ward, Nathaniel . Ward was a Puritan with a sense of humor and a literary bent. He later penned a humorous pamphlet of observations titled The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America, The (Ward) (1647). Like most Puritans, he was a friend to strict discipline, but he also was a foe to arbitrary authority. He could agree with Winthrop and Cotton that all law was the law of God, but with a view toward local conditions and universal morality. He insisted that the code of laws for Massachusetts be based on English common law rather than on the Bible. He became the chief architect and intellectual godfather of the “Massachusetts Magna Charta,” the Body of Liberties. His contribution would be a government of laws and not men. The Pequot War slowed deliberations, but by 1638, the committee had a fresh start, and by 1639, it had ordered a document that combined Cotton’s and Ward’s work. The final document, however, owed more to Ward than to Cotton and was adopted in November, 1641.

In many ways, the Body of Liberties was an enlightened document, and it was certainly remarkable by seventeenth century standards. A compilation of one hundred laws, the Body of Liberties, though not democratic, allowed for wide judicial discretion and for each case to be judged on its merits. It also effectively barred members of the legal profession from defending anyone for pay, and it protected married women from assault. The code addressed the liberties of servants in relatively humanitarian terms for the time: The number of lashes given to servants was limited to forty, and the capital laws were more lenient than those of England.

The distinguished historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that the Body of Liberties was “an enlightened body of laws and of principles that would have done credit to any commonwealth in the seventeenth century. . . .” The one problem, however, was slavery. This bold document addressed the slavery issue thus:

There shall never be any bond slaverie, villainage or captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull captive, taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by authoritie.

Although not a ringing endorsement of slavery, the Body of Liberties nevertheless formally recognized it. Thus it opened the way for the official sanction of slavery. Later and stricter codes would formalize the institution in New England on a colony-by-colony basis.

The recognition of slavery in the Body of Liberties was at base a business decision. An early realization that the price of slaves was greater than their worth as laborers led businessmen in New England New England;slavery and to market some of their slave cargoes to the plantation colonies farther south. Indeed, in the triangular trade of West Africa, the West Indies, and North America, the vast majority of slaves taken by New England traders ended up in the West Indies. Shrewd New England traders shipped rum, fish, and dairy products out; they imported slaves, molasses, and sugar. Those few slaves who were not dropped off in the West Indies or on Southern plantations were heavily taxed. In 1705, Massachusetts imposed a duty of £4 for each slave imported into the colony. Trade;slaves

By 1680, Governor Simon Bradstreet estimated the number of “blacks or slaves” in the Massachusetts colony at one hundred to two hundred. Some special laws were passed restricting the movement of African Americans in white society, but the Puritans encouraged Christian conversion and honored black marriages. Northern slavery was somewhat milder than the Southern variety. Slaves needed to read and write to do their jobs. Although there were occasional isolated rebellions, the slaves benefited from the New England love for learning and the strong Puritan emphasis on marriage and family.


Slavery gradually faded away in Massachusetts, perhaps because of its vague legal status. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, a national clamor for a Bill of Rights led individual colonies to adopt their own. While none expressly forbade slavery, the institution seemed at odds with the rhetoric of fundamental human rights prevalent in the nascent United States. By 1776, the white population of Massachusetts was 343,845 and the black population was 5,249. In the census of 1790, Massachusetts was the only state in which no slaves were listed.

As John Winthrop stated,

wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the Eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. . . .

Despite the legalization of slavery in the Body of Liberties, slavery was never popular in Massachusetts except as incidental to trade; the slave trade was an accepted practice by seventeenth century European standards. The Puritans themselves were products of a rigorous, harsh, isolated experience. They were humanists and intellectuals with contradictions. They prized sincerity and truthfulness yet practiced repression and inhibition to steel themselves against life’s ills. They had a strong element of individualism in their creed, believing that each person must face his Maker alone. Puritan humanism thus never squared with the institution of slavery.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. New York: A. A. Knopf, 2000. Classic text on the evolution of American slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1984. Delves into the theological underpinnings of Puritanism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Perry, ed. The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Includes selected writings from John Cotton, Nathaniel Ward, and John Winthrop.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morison, Samuel Eliot. Builders of the Bay Colony. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981. Contains individual chapters on the Elizabethan architects of Massachusetts, including John Cotton, Nathaniel Ward, and John Winthrop.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966. Rich in original source material about the development of slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Towner, Lawrence William. A Good Master Well Served: Masters and Servants in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620-1750. New York: Garland, 1998. Examines the master-servant relationship in colonial Massachusetts, focusing on the living conditions and experiences of African American and white bonded servants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Betty. The Origins of American Slavery: The English Colonies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997. Explains the religious and economic rationale for the use of slave labor in English colonies. Chapter 5 focuses on slavery among the Puritans and Quakers.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

John Cotton; John Winthrop. Slavery;Massachusetts Bay Colony Body of Liberties

Categories: History