Saturday, February 23, 2013

Racism and Slavery in Puritan New England (Part 1)

Last year a friend of mine from church asked me if the colonial Puritans were racist since many of them supported slavery. My first response was to point out that there is no necessary connection between supporting slavery and being racist, and I told him I doubted that the New England Puritans had been racist. However, I promised to look into the matter.

After having spent months researching it, I have come across compelling evidence to suggest that, as a whole, the New England Puritans were indeed very racist. I will be sharing my findings in a series of blog posts. I will also make available for download a pdf where the text of these posts will be fully referenced with footnotes verifying every claim I make.
The first Puritan colonies to sanction the practice of chattel slavery were Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641 made “bond slaverie, villenage, or captivitie” acceptable if the people in bondage were “lawful captives taken in juste warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us.” This law was interpreted in explicitly racial terms, since whites from other colonies or continents could never qualify as “strangers.” As Richard Bailey said in his book Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, “In the years that followed, the New England colonies defined exactly what members of society might be considered captives and strangers. Almost without exception, as historian A. Leon Higginbotham has illustrated, Native Americans and Africans represented the constituency of New England society most regularly affected by this portion of the legal code.”

For the Puritans, Africans and Native American qualified as human property solely on the basis of their skin-colour, and this included children of white New Englanders as long as one parent was a person of colour.

The specifically racial dimension to the slavery laws was justified by the association New Englanders came to entertain between black pigmentation and the devil, an association which, Bailey tells us, enabled them to “[use] concepts of blackness to map negative meanings onto the bodies of New Englanders of colour. By so doing, they constructed a racialized sense of sin.” The association of whiteness with righteousness and blackness with sin led some Puritan thinkers to suggest that after the resurrection all redeemed blacks would be whitened.

New England law allowed Puritans to treat
African American women in dehumanizing
ways, such as separating them from
their husbands or taking away their children
at a whim.
The Puritan’s racialized sense of sin was as much the result of mistreatment of non-whites as the cause of it. During the early years of the Puritan settlement, before slavery became an economic necessity, most Puritans conceived a person’s identity primarily in terms of their religion or their nation of origin rather than race. This gradually began to change in the years during and following King Philip’s war, a bloody conflict with the native Americans lasting from 1675–1678. During this war New Englanders increasingly found it necessary to kill their Native American neighbours to expand the boundaries of their territory. Out of the brutalities of King Philip’s War there emerged an ideology of race that would afterward shape New Englander’s self-understandings and become central to justifications of race-based slavery.

Moreover, as ships loaded with Africans rested in their harbours, and as the Puritans increasingly found it difficult to maintain their chosen way of life without participation in the trade of human flesh, a racist ideology arose which served to sanctify these actions. As Bailey again reminds us: “In a world, therefore, where the pigmentation of one’s skin rapidly surpassed one’s national or religious heritage as a marker of identity, ‘white’ replaced ‘Christian’ as the moniker of choice for Europeans, illustrating the propensity to collapse physical and cultural differences of all sorts into simple distinctions of skin color.”

The racism harboured by the New England Puritans not only legitimated the trade in human flesh, but also justified the barbarous treatment of slaves.

The dehumanizing features of chattel slavery began even before the slaves stepped onto the American continent. John Dwyer described the dehumanizing conditions on board slave vessels in his book The War Between the States:
“Often, the slaves found themselves jammed into small cubbyholes on the slave ships’ lower decks, body on top of body, unable to move. Their journey across the Atlantic lasted anywhere from four days to three weeks. They had little food or water, and sometimes no toilet facilities except where they lay atop one another. In these unsanitary conditions, disease ran rampant. Weaker slaves often died early in the voyage, only to lie rotting in the cargo holds. Those still alive could not get away from them and often lay atop or beneath them, day after day. The slaves faced dehumanization, brutality, and sometimes the merciless, sadistic beatings of the slave ships’ crews.”

Unfortunately, this type of abuse was not limited to their time on board the ships. Puritan masters would sometimes treat their slaves so brutally that slaves were even driven to suicidal despair.

Massachusetts long time puritan minister, Stephen Williams, drove enslaved Africans to take their lives within days of beating them without pity. (Williams was Jonathan Edwards’ cousin and the one who recorded the latter’s iconic address ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’)

Cruel though they were, the abuse that the Puritans meted out on African Americans was compared to the inhuman tortures perpetrated upon the Africans in New York, where officials devised torments for convicted slaves that included being slowly burnt alive for up to ten hours. Minkema tells us that “Accounts of convicted blacks being burned at the stake in New York caused New Englanders, such as Josiah Cotton of Plymouth, to compare the search for perpetrators to the Salem witchcraft hysteria and to plead with New Yorkers to cease ‘making bonfires of your Negroes.’” Cadwell tells of one slave, who shot a man during the 1712 New York rebellion, who was condemned to burn “with a slow fire that he may Continue in Torment for eight or Ten hours & continue burning in the said fire until he be dead and Consumed to Ashes.”

It is true that many Puritan pastors preached against such cruelties, but few preached against slavery itself or the domestic slave trade that made this type of abuse legal in the first place. In general all the New England Puritans supported and participated in the African slave trade, some in more direct and material ways than others. Nor did they question the separate legal infrastructure that existed to regulate life for non-whites and to keep them in an inferior position socially.

A white woman was punished by the Hampshire County
Court of General Sessions in 1760 for maintaining a
mixed-race relationship. Her punishment included being
stripped naked, being given fifteen lashes, the denial of
assistance in raising her child and being prevented from
marrying her child’s father.
The parallel infrastructure of laws for people of colour touched almost every aspect of life in Puritan New England. African Americans were at the mercy of their Puritan overlords, who could separate husbands and wives or remove children from parents at a whim. In his study The Negro in Colonial New England, Lorenzo Greene told how children “were sometimes taken from their parents and sold with as little restraint as one would sell a calf, pig, or colt.”

Similarly, Minkema tells how “many married slave couples in New England were forced to live separately, and compulsory breeding, though rare, did occur. Slave families that did live together might be broken up at any time, such as when an owner died. Black children were often removed from the homes in which they were born so that masters could avoid the cost of their upbringing.” As this suggests, Puritan law allowed African Americans to be treated in dehumanizing ways despite theoretically being considered part of the Puritan household and covenant.

The parallel legal infrastructure that existed meant that it was a criminal offence for New Englanders to treat whites in the way they were allowed to treat people of colour, including those who were merely part white. In Puritan New England, a black who broke the law could be expected to be punished more severely than a white who broke the law. Moreover, the colonial court system prevented mixed race marriages.  If a black man had a relationship with a white woman, he was usually accused of rape or attempted rape, partly “because the members of the court simply refused to believe that white women might desire their neighbors of color.” White women who had children by black men could expect a punishment almost comparable to the type of abuse reserved for people of colour. In one case recounted by Bailey, a white woman was punished by the Hampshire County Court of General Sessions in 1760 for maintaining a mixed-race relationship. Her punishment included being stripped naked, being given fifteen lashes, the denial of assistance in raising her child and being prevented from marrying her child’s father, who was sold to a buyer in another area after being severely punished himself. By contrast, a woman who maintained an illicit relationship with a white man could get out of the whipping by simply paying a fine.

Further Reading

Some of this material will be appearing in the monthly newsletter of Christian Voice, a ministry whose website is It is printed here with permission of Christian Voice.


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