I reopen George H. Moore’s “Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts,” resmelling “the smell.” Virtually every other author about slavery in the north quotes Moore extensively so I decide it behooves me to take a closer look at it. In the meantime I find myself wondering: who is this person who painstakingly documented virtually every single statistic pertaining to the slave trade in MA (for instance, that in 1776 5,249 slaves resided within the Commonwealth)? Who wrote such disdainful yet discreet remarks as “the laws against the irregular commerce of the sexes were an awkward part of a system [of slavery]?” One can almost see him looking over the top rims of his glasses saying it out loud. In order to find out who we was I would conduct any amount of research. I would comb primary sources, pursue chains of footnotes, leave no researchable stone unturned.
Or I would google him.
“George Henry Moore,” read his NY Times obituary (1892), “superintendent of the Lenox Library.” A librarian, I thought. I, who am employed by a library, was sitting in a library reading a book written by a librarian. I am seriously going to spend the rest of my life living and breathing libraries, aren’t I? It definitely explains the punctilious attention to detail and schoolmarmish language.
All the same it was clear that Moore’s attitudes were, to put it mildly, somewhat abolitionist. He also had a mind as keen as a diamond. Moore zeroed in on the one word in MA’s anti-slavery statute that allowed the Bay State was able to reconcile lofty ideals with a system of human chattel. That word was “unless.” Noone could be a slave “unless” they were captured in battle or sold themselves (or were sold) into slavery. Indeed, settlers of Massachusetts Bay proposed a war with the Pequod Native Americans by way of obtaining “gainful pillage” in the form of slaves.
This, at least in part, solved the problem posed by John Locke — Enlightenment philosopher extraordinaire who laid the cornerstone of American democratic thought — regarding “lawful” slavery. While Locke had an extremely complicated relationship with slavery — he helped draft the Carolina Constitution, for example — his brief thoughts on slavery emphasized that the only lawful form of slavery was the conscripting of prisoners of war into servitude. Granted, as a product of his time, Locke may have only been speaking of white men. However, it strikes me as compelling that in the colonial era slaveowners were justifying their trade through a “prisoner of war” loophole.
This evident need to justify the enslavement of other humans provides an interesting tension to an idea floated by Moore that the Bay colonists needed to “outgrow the theology of Elizabethan Calvinism.” The particular theology Moore saw as up for grabs was the notion of the MA Puritans being among the elect. John Winthrop, MA’s first governor likely saw himself as predestined to rule with Christ in heaven; after all, he took pains to see his holdings as “here in paradise.” In accord with Max Weber’s treatise on the Protestant Work Ethic, an “ever increasing balance sheet” was necessary even for one’s own personal slice of heaven. Land was property and property was intended to provide some sort of return. Native Americans did not derive a profit from their land and therefore were not entitled to it.
Here is where my theories begin to border on rampant speculation.
The supposed “lack of entitlement” Native Americans had to their own land was part and parcel of their “enslaveability.” They are not worthy of this land, thought the Puritans. They don’t know the value of earning profit from it, therefore they are not elect. They are “other.” Moreover they were not bound to the land; they were nomadic and permeable, moving from place to place. The average Puritan would have found this offputting, not to mention emasculating. Elect status was the only direct guarantee of legitimate power, after all. Therefore the “savage” natives had no cause to expect equal treatment now did they? They must have been placed here to be displaced. In fact, Moore notes that the Native Americans were referred to by the early settles as Amalekites.
My rampant speculation continues along the vein of equating sex and gender to race. Stay tuned for our next installment where the good doctor revives a random book about slavery written by an author very few people actually care about! Except me!