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An Ambiguous Institution: Slavery, the State, and the Law in Colonial Massachusetts

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This essay examines the impact the state had in shaping slavery in colonial Massachusetts. Like other parts of the early modern English-speaking world, there was no legal precedent for slavery, meaning that positive law had to enforce and define the institution. Even more problematic for Massachusetts, however, the colonial assembly passed few statutes regarding slavery, leaving it to the courts and town selectmen to govern slavery on an ad hoc and informal basis. As opposed to strict slave codes in the Southern colonies, the legally ambiguous status of slavery in Massachusetts allowed slaves to make use of a legal system that granted them the right to a fair trial and full legal recourse. By using the courts, then, African-Americans created an innovative and effective path to freedom by the late colonial period.

Affiliations: 1: Boston College, Email:


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