Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On This Date in 1652

In a turn of administrative casuistry typical of Rhode Island, the colony passed a law that declared one of its major industries illegal. Well, it didn't effectively criminalize slavery, it strongly suggested that slaveryshouldn't be so much abolished as amended to whatever extent that its stakeholders permitted. The eager will characterize this as deeming slavery illegal; famous Rhode Islanders John and Moses Brown considered it "abolition with benefits."
(Quakers with strong ties to the triangle trade. Or at least the side that didn't involve molasses or rum)Rhode Island's orginal settlers were religious "separatists" exiled by the Massachusetts communities who brought them there in the first place -- themselves also separatists. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson couldn't have been happier. They had showered off the pong of all of the Church of England idolators who hadn't contrived a high enough wall between Church and State and hadn't allowed for "freedom of conscience."
Hi Neighbor! Have a 'Gansett! Won't you?By 1652, it was simple: illegalize slavery by requiring that those who force "black mankinde" into servitude comply with the same rules that apply in any European indenture; Africans would be indentured for a period of ten years, after which time they must be set free. Free to become miserable hourly at-will wage drudges like everybody else in Rhode Island.
In the best of all possible worlds -- and, Rhode Island is THISCLOSE to being "the best of all possible worlds" -- this "law" might have effectively abolished slavery, or at least limited its ambition. The worst thing that could happen would be that, in order to replace freed chattel, Rhode Island slavers would have to redouble their efforts at supplying the New World with African slaves.
Which is exactly what happened anyway.
Like most traffic laws in Rhode Island ("obey speed limits," "negotiate four-way stops," "fully stop at intersections"), there was little actual enforcement of the slavery "law," which was approached by citizens and lawmen the same way present-day Rhode Islanders respect any toothless legislation: regard it as toothless, and ignore it.
Rhode Island did eventually make slavery illegal for realz in 1784.

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