Massachusetts, not Virginia, was the first colony to legalize slavery
For there to be slavery in any colony, laws had to be written making the practice legal. Prior to the slave laws, indentured servants were given the same contracts regardless of where they were from. Once the contracts were fulfilled, servants were free regardless of where they came from.
There is a stubborn myth in American history that claims that Virginia was the first colony to legalize slavery. If not Virginia, then some other southern colony. It was as if the northern colonies were completely untouched by the horrors of owning a person.
The first colony to legalize slavery was not Virginia or some other southern colony, but Massachusetts in 1641. Virginia would not legalize slavery for just over two decades after Massachusetts.
Until 1641, no colony turned state had legalized slavery. It first happened under Governor John Winthrop, who was the first governor of Massachusetts and re-elected twelve consecutive times from 1631 to 1648 through more than questionable means.
During his reign, he was a bit of a control freak who took it personally that people were fleeing Massachusetts for Connecticut. Anyone who left that he did not personally want to see removed from his colony was seen as a traitor.
Roger Williams was one of those Winthrop wanted gone. He was one of the founders of Rhode Island and a serious threat to Winthrop. He openly called for toleration of religious beliefs and was embraced by enough Massachusetts colonists to be seen as a threat to Winthrop's power.
From MassMoments, "Roger Williams Banished":
Once in Massachusetts, he began preaching religious tolerance. The colony's leaders agreed with the English authorities that this was nothing less than "Satan's Policy." They denounced his views and forced him out of the colony. He took refuge with the Narragansett Indians, whose chiefs sold land to him and his followers. They established a new settlement and named it Providence, in thanksgiving to God.
Winthrop dragged his feet when it came to granting representative government and the liberties expected of any colonist. Colonists viewed themselves as an extension of England and had rights granted under English Common Law.
After there was enough pressure to force him to grant liberties, he allowed them to be written and even wrote some himself, which included the language that allowed for slavery to exist in Massachusetts. It was a clear violation of English Common Law that was ignored by the colonists and London.
From Britannica, John Winthrop, "American Colonial Governor":
In 1641 Winthrop helped write the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first legal sanctioning of slavery in North America.
Ninety-eight laws were written, which did include numerous liberties for the people under his rule. Hanover College is one of several sources that include the laws. Number ninety-one is the law that legalized slavery, the first in the colonies to do so.
91. There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.
Including any law legalizing slavery should have been stopped by the people of Massachusetts or by London. Nothing in English Common Law, as was later found in the Somerset Case of 1772, allowed for slavery to exist. It was a clear violation of rights under Common Law that was ignored by far too many who could have stopped slavery before it spread to other colonies.
From History on the Net, "The Case of Somerset v Stewart":
In his ruling, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield declared that slavery was an institution so "odious" and so contrary to natural law that it could exist only by statute. Unless a law established the slave relation, slavery had to be assumed not to exist. In the absence of such a statute in England, the slave relation had to be considered of no effect in that country, and therefore Sommersett should be released.
Mansfield ruled from the highest Common Law court in England. He made it clear there was nothing within English Common Law that allowed slavery to exist in England or anywhere else where people were under British rule.
Every English colony was required to have a representative government and laws in line with English Common Law. Slavery should have never been allowed to be legalized in any colony since they could not pass a slave law without violating English Common Law.
For almost a full decade following Massachusetts's legalization of slavery, they remained the only colony to do so. There was no eagerness to follow their lead in any other colony. The delay showed that people throughout the colonies were expecting London to act against Massachusetts.
Considering the 1619 Project, there should have been a rush by Virginia and other southern colonies to legalize slavery following Massachusetts. If the white people of their day were just waiting for an opportunity to legalize slavery, then why did they hesitate in every other colony?
Thoughtco's "Enslavement Timeline 1619 to 1696" provides a timeline of the American colonies with regard to slavery being legalized. It shows that Connecticut was the second colony to legalize slavery, but not until 1650. Virginia did not pass a slave law until 1662, over twenty years after Massachusetts legalized slavery.
Slavery was and remains a horrific institution that should be taught as part of what happened in colonial and early American history. It should be based on what happened, not some bastardization of events.
It should be noted, whenever colonial slavery is taught, that it violated English Common Law when colonies legalized slavery. Regardless of the inaction from London and the colonists themselves, equality under the law matters. When the law is ignored, bad things follow.
Bob Ryan is a writer who has an MBA and is a science fiction writer and mostly historical blogger. He has been a weekly blogger at the Times of Israel since 2019. He is an American Christian Zionist who staunchly supports Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
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