Slavery & the Massachusetts Courts

Slavery was common, legal, and vital to the colonial Massachusetts economy.

As the legal historian, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., observed, “Merchants from Massachusetts, the most vigorous slave traders in the world, made enormous profits from the slave trade.”

In 1638, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Boston, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Few English settlers thought to question the ancient institution of slavery—although it never existed in England—and most whites condoned the profitable African slave trade.

The Selling
of Joseph

Selling of Joseph
Read an 18th-century judge's passionate plea to abolish slavery.

Mum Bett
Challenges Slavery

Mum Bett Challenges Slavery
Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) filed a suit against her owners.

The Case of
Quock Walker

The Case of Quock Walker
In two pivotal cases, Walker used the law to gain his freedom.

The “Trial” of
Anthony Burns

The Trial of Anthony Burns
Boston resident Anthony Burns was captured and returned to slavery.

The Ordeal of
Shadrach Minkins

The Ordeal of Shadrach Minkins
Local leaders rallied the community when Minkins was seized.

Fugitive Slave Law

The federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required residents in free states to aid legal authorities in apprehending runaway slaves. Those who assisted escaping slaves faced a $1000 fine (an enormous sum at the time) and six months in jail.

The Fugitive Slave Law also established a separate judicial system to process accused fugitive slaves. Ignoring ordinary legal rules and procedures, the system favored slaveholders, leaving every free or enslaved African American without basic constitutional rights. This total denial of freedom and legal protection enraged Northern blacks and whites, even those without firm antislavery convictions.

Abolitionists and ordinary citizens organized committees, raised funds, assisted the Underground Railroad, and rebelled against the government to rescue and protect accused African Americans. Attorneys tried using the legal system, but only defiance of the law and the legendary Underground Railroad offered effective means of gaining justice.

“Our temple of justice is a slave pen!” —Lawyer Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 1851
Broadside: Caution colored people of Boston...