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Puritan New England's "Middle Way" on Slavery

Puritan New England's "Middle Way" on Slavery
AI visualization of the governor's procession during a "Negro Election Day" in antebellum New England.

How did abolitionists come to be more concentrated in New England than in other parts of the North, and why did those states tend to enact universal male suffrage sooner than elsewhere? One answer stems from the Afro-Puritan tradition of "Negro Election Day," which predated emancipation in colonial New England.

Among the themes of David Hackett Fischer's book African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals is how black experiences throughout colonial America and later the United States were shaped partly by their various points of African origin and how they interacted with the white populations in different parts of the country, whose behavior was in turn influenced by the cultures of the different British regions from which the white settlers hailed. (That last subject is explored in book-length form in Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, as discussed in this post and this one.)

New England was primarily settled by Puritans from East Anglia, with special consequences for how slavery was practiced in the new colonies:

In New England, the institution of slavery differed in form and substance from other North American colonial regions. It was deliberately designed by Puritan masters and mistresses who shared a sense of conscience and distinctive ways of thinking about human bondage.
On slavery as a moral question, English Puritans in Britain and North America responded in different ways. Some opposed it entirely, as did Richard Baxter (1615-91), an outspoken English theologian and moralist, often imprisoned for writings that combined Puritan passion with Shakespearean prose. He became a major figure in the English Civil War, an advisor to leaders of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, and later an architect of the Stuart Restoration without diminishing his Puritan principles.
Baxter never came to New England, but his writings were said to have been read more widely there than the work of any other Puritan author. In 1673, he published a short but powerful polemic against human bondage. In a summary sentence, he asserted “the inconsistence of slavery with every right of mankind, with every feeling of humanity, and every precept of Christianity.” His indictment of slavery was one of the most comprehensive on record. And it was delivered with a fury that has few equals in antislavery literature—both in its horror of human bondage, and its empathy for the enslaved.
Another Puritan was one of the first active abolitionists in the English-speaking world. Samuel Rishworth lived on Providence Island, a short-lived English colony off Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. It had the same founding dates as New England’s Great Migration, but it was a distant and very different place. Rishworth became the secretary of Providence Island. He was said to be a “godly man,” of “much esteem” for “piety and judgment,” and was described as “a gentleman of means and learning.” Historians later described him as a “Puritan of the true New England type.” Like the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he also believed that “God’s people stand on a hill.” Rishworth was a man of conscience who spoke in support of “poor men” and English servants. He strongly opposed the keeping of African slaves, with no success. Providence Island was rapidly becoming a plantation colony when Spain seized it.
In New England, other leaders were also hostile to slavery from the start. In 1642, the deputy governor of Maine, Thomas Gorges, insisted that the use of slaves in place of servants would be totally “unlawful.” In 1652, Roger Williams's colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations enacted a law that forbade servitude for life, and prohibited “black mankind or white” to serve by “covenant bond or otherwise” for more than ten years, unless under the age of fourteen, in which case they must be freed at the age of twenty-four. That prohibition was repeated in 1675 and also extended to Indian slavery, but both Rhode Island laws were dead letters by 1708.
The best remembered voice against slavery in New England was that of Puritan magistrate Samuel Sewall. In 1700, his pamphlet The Selling of Joseph was the first abolitionist tract published in North America. Sewall’s antislavery argument had deep roots in his Puritan faith.” He reasoned from scripture that “all Men, as they are sons of Adam, are Coheirs, and have equal Right to Liberty.” Further, he insisted that the selling of Joseph as a slave to the Ishmaelites was against God’s law. He wrote that “Joseph was rightfully no more a Slave to his Brethren, than they were to him,” and “there is no proportion between Twenty Pieces of Silver, and LIBERTY.”
Sewall insisted that all slave trading was “manstealing” and that the rule of scripture in Exodus 21:16 was very clear: “He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to Death.”
This strong Puritan moralist also condemned what we would call racism, a double anachronism in his time, which had nothing quite like our modern ideas of “race” or our many ideological “isms.” Samuel Sewall wrote that “black as they are, seeing they are the Sons and Daughters of the First Adam... they ought to be treated with a Respect agreeable.” He also condemned laws that forbade sexual relations and prohibited intermarriage between Africans and Europeans. Sewall was not alone in his stand against slavery and racism. Prominent leaders in New England congratulated him on The Selling of Joseph. In 1701, the selectmen of Boston asked the Massachusetts General Court “to put a period to negroes being Slaves.” Through the years that followed, Boston's elected leaders several times instructed their representatives in the General Court to work “for the total abolishing of slavery among us.”
Other New Englanders went in the opposite direction, and one of them in particular became an ardent defender of slavery. John Saffin was another Boston judge, a wealthy merchant, an active slave trader, a slave owner himself, and a Puritan who “kept the Covenant,” all at the same time. He was also a literary figure, an essayist, and a poet. In the Puritan way, John Saffin thought much about slavery, wrote at length about it, and published New England’s first sustained defense of slavery as an answer to Samuel Sewall’s attack. ...
Saffin himself also became one of the most depraved early masters of African slaves on record in New England. An example was Saffin’s treatment of his slave Adam, whom he had pledged to emancipate on the biblical model after seven years of faithful service. When the time came, Saffin broke his solemn promise and refused to set Adam free. In this instance, New England ethics were stronger in the slave than in his master, and Adam sued for his freedom. Saffin outdid himself in infamy. He appointed himself the presiding judge, sat in judgment on his own case, packed the jury, and delivered angry instructions in his own favor. Adam appealed, with success. The Massachusetts House of Representatives was appalled by Saffin’s gross miscarriage of justice. It ordered a new trial before another judge. In a landmark case, Adam was released from bondage, and became a free man.

The culture of the Cotton States seemed like a world apart to New Englanders because it was.

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