WWU’s Jared Hardesty Publishes ‘Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston’ with NYU Press

by John Thompson
Office of Communications and Marketing

While often viewed through the lens of the Civil War era as the epicenter of the abolitionist movement, it is not as well known that Boston, throughout most of the 18th century, was a city where about 25 percent of households owned slaves, a fact central to “Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston,” the new book by Western Washington University Assistant Professor of History Jared Hardesty.

“While that percentage will certainly be shocking to a lot of people, the reality is that the economic, legal and cultural systems in place in New England before, during, and just after the American Revolution supported slavery as an institution,” Hardesty said. “It wasn’t until the Declaration of Independence stated that ‘all men are created equal,” and the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 stated that ‘all men are born free and equal’ that slavery as an institution began to crumble in earnest in New England.”

Hardesty’s book also paints a different picture of the city as opposed to the binary way of typically viewing slavery in the South or in the Caribbean, where, by and large you were either a slave or you weren’t. In Boston, on the other hand, a wide spectrum – what Hardesty calls “a continuum of unfreedom,” existed.

At the bottom of that social spectrum were African slaves or their American-born descendants, generally referred to as creoles. But joining them in this continuum – which certainly existed elsewhere but was in particularly sharp relief in Boston – were Native American slaves, pauper apprentices, convict laborers, and indentured servants.

“These groups formed a large and complex marginalized underclass where the day-to-day lives of each group were not very dissimilar,” he said.

Pauper apprentices were children taken from the homes of their poor parents – sometimes willingly, sometimes not – who then served as apprentices for years, bound to their masters until the apprenticeship was over.

What the slaves of Boston had, that their counterparts on plantations in the South or the Caribbean did not, was that they were represented by the same laws and rules that governed free society, not a second set of rules just for them.

“What this meant was that they had a place at the legal table with everyone else,” Hardesty said. “A slave who was accused of stealing would go in front of the same justice of the peace as a free man, and would have all the same rights and options as anyone else. This wasn’t the case in the South.”

Drawing on more than 500 hours of research at the Massachusetts State Archives – everything from trial papers, depositions, court testimonies, and witness statements – Hardesty said Boston’s slave community was slowly, inexorably able to gain more and more rights within the system until eventually, as the 18th century drew to a close, the system itself could no longer legally defend the very act of slavery itself.

“Slaves could and would sue their masters for ill treatment, and often won their freedom that way, and by 1790, slavery in Boston had more or less ended. Sadly, slavery was simply replaced with a new system of endemic racism, and many slave owners, seeing the writing on the wall, chose to sell their slaves to new owners in the South or the Caribbean rather than let them go free, which is just one more sad footnote to the whole tragic history of slavery in this country.”

Hardesty’s book is available at the WWU Associated Students Bookstore or through its publisher, NYU Press, at http://nyupress.org/books/9781479816149/.

Hardesty received his doctorate in History from Boston College in 2014, and has taught at Western since the fall of that year. For more information about “Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston,” contact Jared Hardesty at (360) 650-3043 or jared.hardesty@wwu.edu.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 9:12am