Conversations about slavery in the United States frequently center on the South and the Civil War. Yet the roots of American slavery go much deeper than that. They extend all the way back to the original British colonies in North America. Some, like those in New England, would become known for their abolitionist leaders. They fought against slavery and helped formerly enslaved Southern blacks and those escaping slavery. However, the New England colonies also had a history of using slave labor to build their economies.
The Origins of American Slavery
The concept of slavery was hardly a new one to the English colonists who first came to America. It had been practiced in Europe for more than 100 years. In 1619, colonists brought enslaved Africans to Virginia. This was the beginning of a slave trade between Africa and North America based on the social norms of Europe.
Slavery grew quickly in the South because of the region's large plantations. However, slavery in New England was different. New England did not have large plantations for growing crops. Here, it was more common to have one or two slaves working for a household, business, or small farm. Enslaved people often learned special skills and crafts.
New England's Forced Laborers
Part of the reason slavery developed differently in New England was the culture of indentured servitude. This practice also came from England. Indentured servants were often white Europeans working off debts. Usually, they had signed a contract to work for four to seven years. More than half of the original population of the North American colonies was brought over as indentured servants.
New England colonies were also slower to start accepting African slavery in general. One reason for this was that there were local alternatives to African slaves. Early in New England's history, a different kind of slave trade began. Colonists enslaved and shipped local Native Americans to the West Indies, in the Caribbean. This kind of slavery was more limited. Nevertheless, it was part of the history of the early New England slave trade.
Enslaved Africans quickly replaced indentured servants on plantations in Virginia, Maryland, and other Southern colonies. However, that was not the case in New England. At first, enslaved people here had the same rights as indentured servants. That changed in 1641. That year, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed new slave laws. As a result, enslaved people in the colony lost the few rights they had.
Still, the New England colonies began to show differences in how they dealt with slavery. This was true even as slavery became more common in some colonies. For example, Rhode Island tried to enforce laws that would have given certain rights to enslaved people. That colony would have set slaves free after 10 years of service. These actions did not end slavery. However, they were a sign of what was to come in the New England colonies.
Becoming the "Free North"
The use of slavery throughout the colonies continued to grow throughout the 1700s. As time passed, the colonies moved closer to revolution against England. There was a growing trend of questioning slavery in New England. Enslaved individuals who fought in the Revolutionary War (on both sides) were offered their freedom. As a result, the number of freed enslaved people in the region grew.
Religious groups, like the Quakers, began the first antislavery movements in New England. These early movements were very important. They would later develop into the abolitionist movements of the 1800s that spread across the United States.
New England governments began to step in as well. Connecticut and Rhode Island outlawed active slave trades. However, few colonial leaders wanted to fully get rid of slavery at the time. It was not until late into the Revolutionary War period that the former New England colonies began outlawing slavery fully. Vermont was first, followed by Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. By 1840, all New England states were "free" states.