1.1.2. New England (1620-1787): Slavery in the Colonies

Slavery existed in the New England colonies and was particularly well-established in Rhode Island, but it died more quickly in New England than in other parts of the north.   At the end of the Revolution, many New England states either abolished slavery outright or enacted laws providing for gradual emancipation.  States that adopted gradual emancipation laws did so out of concern that immediate emancipation would violate slaveowners’ property rights; gradual emancipation would compensate them by giving them the labor of their young slaves.  States that enacted immediate emancipation did so through constitutional provisions which trumped common law as to property rights.


Maine (part of Mass. at this time)

1783:  Slavery declared to be illegal under 1780 constitution


1774: Slave trade prohibited

1784: Gradual emancipation law:  all blacks under the age of 25 to be freed at age 25

1797: Age of attaining freedom reduced to 21

Rhode Island

1784: Gradual emancipation law:  all blacks under the age of 25 to be freed at age 25

New Hampshire

No laws as to slavery, which “withered away” without legal intervention


1777:  Constitution provides for gradual emancipation (all men to be free at age 21, women to be free at age 18, older slaves freed immediately)

The Quock Walker Case: Commonwealth v. Jennison – Massachusetts, 1783 (unpublished)

  • In 1781, William Jennison was criminally indicted for beating his slave Quock Walker after Walker tried to escape.  Jennison defended himself by arguing that under the law of slavery he had the legal right to punish his slaves as he saw fit.   Chief Justice William Cushing rejected this defense and instructed the jury that Massachusetts had abolished slavery in its 1780 constitution, which stated that:  “All men are born free and equal” and have certain “unalienable rights” including “defending their lives and liberties.” 
  • Cushing interpreted the Massachusetts liberty clause much more broadly than other states interpreted similar clauses in their constitutions and in the Declaration of Independence.   If Cushing did not directly end slavery, he conclusively confirmed that it was dead in Massachusetts. 

Chief Justice William Cushing

“It [slavery] was … a usage which took its origins from the practice of some of the European nations and the regulations for the benefit of trade of the British government respecting its then colonies.  But whatever usages formerly prevailed or slid in upon us by the example of others on the subject, they can no longer exist.  Sentiments more favorable to the natural rights of mankind … have prevailed since the glorious struggle for our rights began.  And these sentiments led the framers of our constitution … to declare that all men are born free and equal; and that every subject is entitled to liberty … In short, … is in my judgment as effectively abolished as it can be by the granting of rights and privileges wholly incompatible and repugnant to its existence.”
– Chief Justice William Cushing, in Jennison