Jenny Slew was born about 1719 as the child of a free white woman and a black slave. She married one or more black men who were slaves but lived her life as a free woman until 1762 when she was kidnapped and enslaved by John Whipple of the Hamlet (part of Ipswich that later became Hamilton).
She found an attorney and in March, 1765 sued Mr. Whipple in the Inferior Court of Common Pleas on a charge of trespass for holding her in bondage illegally. (Note–many generations of the Whipple family had sons named John and Matthew).
In the civil suit “Jenny Slew, Spinster, versus John Whipple Jr., Gentleman” she asserted through her counsel that as a child’s legal status follows that of the mother, she was a free woman. The complaint stated that “on Jan. 29, 1762 John Whipple with force and arms took her held and kept her in servitude as a slave in his service and thus restrained her of her lawful liberty and did other injuries to the amount of £25.”
Whipple countered that he possessed a bill of sale for the purchase of Jenny Slew, and that she had no legal standing to sue him since she had been married. Under Massachusetts law at that time a married woman had no legal identity separate from her husband and therefore could not sue on her own behalf. The court dismissed her petition on a technicality, ruling that since Jenny had been married ,”Jenny Slew, Spinstress” did not exist.
The Ipswich Riverwalk Mural painted by Alan Pearsall portrays Jenny Slew receiving compensation from John Whipple.
A year later Jenny Slew filed an appeal with the Essex Superior Court of Judicature in Salem, which granted her a jury trial. The court took into consideration that she had not been married at the times of the two trials, and that under the state’s 1706 anti-miscegenation statue, her marriages to slaves were of questionable validity, deciding that she was therefore a “spinster.” In November of 1766 the jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and ordered Whipple to free Jenny Slew. She was awarded £4 in damages and £5 in costs.
Present in the Salem courthouse during the 1765 trial was a lawyer named John Adams, who took notes on the proceedings: “Attended Court, heard the trial of an action of trespass, brought by a mulatto woman, for damages, for restoring her liberty. This is called suing for liberty; the first action that ever I knew of the sort, though I have heard there have been many.” Adams’ draft for the Massachusetts State Constitution 14 years later included a declaration of rights that stated “all men are born free and equal.”
John Whipple’s brother Matthew Whipple who lived in the Hamlet changed his will in 1760 to provide that after his death and his wife’s, their slave Plato “shall be free if he desires it and if he don’t he shall have Liberty to live with any of my friends whom he pleases and I give him liberty to live in my east kitchen.” Plato was to receive several items, including a cow and “a good Pasture for her and liberty to cut hay sufficient for her” and if Plato could no longer support himself comfortably, Whipple’s heirs were to grant him “whatever he shall stand in need of”.
Jenny Slew is believed to have been the first person held as a slave to be granted freedom through trial by jury, and the people of Massachusetts were becoming increasingly anti-slavery. Article 1 of the Constitution of Massachusetts adopted in 1780 declared that “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.” The General Court (legislature) passed an Act in March 1788 to prevent the slave trade and “granting relief to the families of such unhappy persons as may be kidnapped or decoyed away from this Commonwealth.”
Sources and further reading
- Jenny Slew, Spinster, versus John Whipple Jr., Gentleman”
- Slew v. Whipple, 1766; John Adams’ Copy of the Declaration, and Report, Essex Superior Court, Salem, November 1766
- Legal Papers of John Adams, Volume 2
- Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts, By George Moore
- Wikipedia: Jenny Slew
- The Constitutional Convention, the Electoral College, slavery and the Civil War
- Names of the Ipswich slaves
- Whipple: 15 generations of Whipples : descendants of Matthew Whipple of Ipswich, Massachusetts, abt. 1590-1647: Vol. 1
- John Whipple
- Matthew Whipple, 1590-1647
- Whipple family
- Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts
- New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America
- New England Historical Society: The Beginning of the End of Slavery in Massachusetts
- Four Petitions Against Slavery (1773 to 1777)