The Institution of Slavery in the New England Colonies

Over the past 5 weeks, I have had a lot of research on the practice and institution of slavery in Colonial New England, since that is what my final paper will be about, so I’m incredibly happy that this week’s module coincides with the writing of the rough draft.

Slavery in New England in the colonial period, although technically considered chattel slavery as was practiced both in the south and in the West Indies, was a different type of slavery than may be expected when studying the subject. It is inarguable that slavery in the colonies was in much smaller numbers than that which was practiced elsewhere, and it is also impossible to argue that the slavery that existed in the New England Colonies was not fundamentally tied to the trade agreements between the colonists and the Indies.[1] The passing back and forth of labor in the form of slaves (both African and Native American) to the Indies in exchange for the selling of sugar, tobacco and other cash crops enabled large-scale economic growth in the New England colonies, further increasing the demand for labor which, in turn, required more slaves.[2]

It is hard to argue, however, that slavery was ever “embraced” by the colonists in New England. While true that it was an accepted and justified way of life and was normalized long before revolutionary sentiments began, it was never as prolific as it was in the southern colonies, and very early on it had its critics.[3]  The interesting part about slavery in religious terms was that it was both justified and condemned by the Bible and shared religious beliefs.[4]

By the mid-18th century, racial biases and understandings in the New World were just beginning to be formed.[5]   While some like Cotton Mather argued that physical differences did matter to God and therefore should not necessarily matter to humankind, others took a very different position, justifying both superiority and inferiority on racial lines.[6]

In hindsight, it’s all too easy for those of us in the 21st century to look back on the institution of slavery and its history in our country with disdain and judgement, but to do so minimizes the variations and arguments against it that began to stoke the fires of abolition in New England which would eventually spread and consume the rest of a fledgling nation.

[1] Winthrop D Jordan, “The Influence of the West Indies on the Origins of New England Slavery,” The William and Mary Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1961):243-250.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert E Desrochers Jr., “Slave-for-Sale Advertisements and Slavery in Massachusetts, 1704-1781,” The William and Mary Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2002):623-664.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Margot Minardi, “The Boston Inoculation Controversy of 1721-1722: An Incident in the History of Race,” The William and Mary Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2004):47-76.

[6] Ibid.


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