A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Researching Slavery in the North during the American Revolution

March 18, 2011

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Joyce Lee Malcolm

When Mason legal historian Joyce Lee Malcolm completed a PhD at Brandeis University, she took on a complicated project for the Minute Man National Park in Massachusetts. She was tasked with documenting what exactly the seven miles of park road looked like during the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

“My job was to tell them where everything was on April 19, 1775. They wanted to know where the houses were, the barns, the open fields, the orchards—everything,” says Malcolm, who is a professor at Mason’s School of Law. “That [project] was a real plunge into primary documents.”

During her research, Malcolm came across a receipt in some family papers. It was the bill of sale for a 19-month-old “negro servant boy” named Peter. Puzzled by her find, Malcolm made a copy of that document for her own files.

Flash forward more than two decades, Malcolm is now a Constitution scholar and an expert on the second amendment. The author of seven books, including To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of the Anglo-American Right, she taught at Boston University and Bentley University, and was a research fellow at Harvard Law School, Princetown University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research has been referenced in Supreme Court decisions. Yet, she still carries around that Xerox copy of a 1765 bill of sale.

Malcolm says she showed the document to people over the years and even shared copies of it.

A copy of the 1765 bill of sale.

“I really didn’t know what to make of it,” she says. “I had never come across a receipt such as that. I’m sure they existed, but families didn’t keep them.” She was also surprised that there would have been a transaction involving a child so young.

When Malcolm decided to find out more about Peter, she really didn’t know whether she would be able to find much information at all.

“I didn’t know whether he had even lived beyond childhood or who his biological parents were,” she says of starting the project. “There were a lot of things I didn’t know whether I would be able to find out. It was a true detective search in that sense.”

But she was able to discover things about Peter and the Nelson family who had acquired him, thanks to the Lincoln, Massachusetts, public library, where records date back to the founding of the town in 1754. She also was able to use the Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War Registry to track Peter after he joined the Continental Army and moved from regiment to regiment throughout the war. Then, crafting his story was a matter of setting Peter and his circumstances against the background of the times in which he grew up and what was taking place in the newly formed country.

“I’ve written a lot of analytical history, but this was very different,” says Malcolm of writing her seventh book, Peter’s War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 2008), the result of her detective work. “You really have to put yourself back in time and imagine what life was like then. I really enjoyed it.”

In an effort to bring Peter’s life to the page, Malcolm adopted a narrative style for the book that described the environs and daily life. She also chose to use an essay on resources at the end of the book rather than footnotes so the text would be more accessible to the general public.

The Peter’s War research has also proved useful in her teaching. “Everyone is so familiar with how slavery was handled in the South before the Civil War. There isn’t that much written about slavery in the North,” she says. “My research did educate me with the rules of slavery in New England.”

In her Constitution Law class, Malcolm has always had her students review the slavery code of South Carolina, but now she also teaches them about the rules in New England. “It was a different paradigm,” she says. “Slaves lived with the family in the same house, they got married in church, and they had legal rights. They could appear in court, and often the all-white jury would find for the slave.”

“The law is a wonderful source for historians,” says Malcolm. “Law deals with large theoretical issues, but it has to keep making decisions. For example, was this person insane? What do we mean by insanity? To be able to get into those records provides a great source for understanding the thinking of people.”

As a result of her new area of expertise, Malcolm has an article on slavery in Massachusetts in the latest issue of The Journal of the Historical Society.

Of course, research and investigation always lead to new ideas. While researching Peter’s short life (although he survived his service to the Continental Congress, he died before the age of 30, possibly of small pox during an outbreak in the winter of 1791–92), Malcolm came across other documents that piqued her interest. She is now working on a biography of Benedict Arnold, which is yet another departure for her.

“The Arnold biography grew from the background I did for Peter’s War and the battles I researched,” she says. “So one thing I found led to another.”

Excited by her latest project, Malcolm is yet again compiling her facts, soldiering the harsh New England winter with the Continental Army (at least in her mind), and composing yet another life.

“Biography is so different from traditional scholarly history,” she says, “because you want to make the person actually ‘live.’”

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