Slavery, Abolition, Massachusetts


In 1795 a law professor at the College of William and Mary wrote a letter to a clergyman who lived in Massachusetts. The professor was Judge St. George Tucker; the clergyman was the Reverend Dr. Jeremy Belknap of the Massachusetts Historical Society. In more than just a routine correspondence between friends, Judge Tucker was seeking advice, not just for himself, but for the entire state of Virginia. As he explained in his letter, Tucker had "observed, with much pleasure, that [slavery] has been wholly exterminated from ... Massachusetts" and sought to "learn what methods are most likely to succeed in removing the same evil from among ourselves." Tucker had asked a very complicated question; scholars today argue the source of Massachusetts abolition and cannot seem to come to a general accord. Indeed, Belknap himself seemed unsure where to begin and responded with an extremely lengthy essay on the topic. In the end, Belknap arrived at a two-part conclusion as to what eradicated slavery in his home state: 1) it was "abolished by public opinion" and 2) by judgments in the judicial courts, particularly the Quok Walker cases. Dr. Belknap was correct. The combination of a society ready to eradicate slavery and the proper judicial test case acted as a catalyst in the process of abolition, as Massachusetts became the first state in the brand new Union to completely outlaw the practice.