The New England colonies practiced slavery beginning in the mid-17th century.
The New England colonies practiced slavery beginning in the mid-17th century.

Slavery existed throughout the American colonies and states until the Civil War period. It is well-known that Southern colonies had slaves, but the New England colonies also practiced slavery from the early 17th century. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island had the largest slave populations in New England. The Medford Historical Society estimated that there was one African for every four white families in these three states.

Slave Population Sizes

Although some cities in New England, such as Boston and Newport, had more than 20 percent of their population as enslaved laborers at the time of the American Revolution, the overall slave percentage in New England was around 2 to 3 percent. While slaves had been sold in the American colonies since 1619, they did not become a large part of the labor force until the last quarter of the 17th century. The slave populations varied considerably in the New England colonies, with Rhode Island having the highest proportional slave population. South Kingston in Rhode Island had 30 percent of its population as slaves at the start of the American Revolution.

Early Slavery Laws

Slavery became recognized as a legal institution in New England years before it was recognized as legal in the South.The first official recognition of chattel slavery came in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641. This law legalized the slavery of people who were taken captive in just wars and those who voluntarily sold themselves. Connecticut and New Plymouth adopted this statute two years later in the Articles of the New England Confederation. Rhode Island separately passed a similar law in 1652.

Anti-Slavery Laws

Vermont became the first colony to ban slavery outright on July 2, 1777. In addition, Vermont’s legislature provided full voting rights to African-American males. Rhode Island and Connecticut had banned overseas slave importation in 1774, but they continued to allow a regional slave trade within the colonies. Anti-slavery sentiment continued to mount in the colonies. A network of safehouses emerged to assist black people escaping slavery, and abolitionists pushed for changes in law. Personal Liberty Laws were passed giving runaways the right to a jury trial before being released back into the custody of a slaveowner claiming a property right.

Free Blacks

Some of the New England colonies treated free blacks quite poorly despite being emancipated. The harshest treament for free blacks occurred in Connecticut. That state passed a series of laws both before and after the Revolutionary War that made it illegal for free blacks to own property, or enter a business establishment without prior permission. After the laws were passed, free blacks owning property had to turn their land over to the government.