“Unless.” One tiny word, creating a tiny loophole that slavers stretched open large enough for an entire herd of camels to pass through.
Item 91 of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 decreed that there should never be any bond slavery. At all. End of discussion.
“Unless,” the item continued, “it be lawful captives taken in just wars (“just wars” having, as we explored in our last entry, a very loose definition). And such strangers as willingly sell themselves. Or are sold to us . . . .”
A practical notion that skirted, as has been stated and restated, Locke’s notion of “just war” and slavery. By the turn of the 18th century more than 1200 Native Americans would be enslaved and subsequently traded for Africans. The number of black slaves in New England at that time is murky, although Moore conservatively estimates around 200.
The trouble with tracking slavery in MA is that the terms “slave” and “servant” were often used interchangably. Also, as my interview with Mr. Docent at the Cambridge Historical Society bore out, slave labor in the North tended to be of a very different sort from the plantation economies down South.
“Unless.” Two syllables that indelibly marked one of the darkest, dankest, most damnable blots on our nation’s conscience.
So the “just war” served to justify enslaving the Native Americans. How then, would trading them for other slaves wash with lofty Enlightenment ideals? Perhaps it fell under the rubric of “willingly selling themselves?” Perhaps they saw it as simple pragmatism; necessary steps for a fledgeling nation? Perhaps simple bigotry?
Either way, it’s clear that keeping slavery (mostly) at ship’s length helped the North’s uneasy compromise with the “peculiar institution.”
Coming soon: I hope to have some field visit under my belt soon! Until then more musings on the notes and research I’ve gathered so far. Plus, 60% more Locke! I’m sure y’all are on the edges of your seats for that.