Jared Hardesty is Assistant Professor of History at Western Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston (NYU Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Unfreedom?
JH: I originally wanted to write a history of tobacco cultures across the Atlantic world, but quickly realized I also wanted to finish graduate school. I’ve long had an interest in slavery in the British North American colonies and when preparing for my comprehensive examinations, I realized that nobody had written a history of slavery in Boston. One of my graduate advisors then told me about a collection of court file papers at the Massachusetts State Archives that has a plethora of material about slaves and slavery, but was underutilized by scholars. That collection, the Suffolk Files, became the corpus for writing the dissertation and later Unfreedom.
The records contained in the Suffolk Files opened an entire new world of slavery for me. There are a large number of depositions and testimonies that allowed me to listen to enslaved voices in a unique and interesting way. While legal documents are inherently problematic, I was able to learn and synthesize quite a bit of information about individual slaves and their experiences.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unfreedom?
JH: Unfreedom examines the lived experiences of enslaved Bostonians by embedding them in a larger Atlantic world characterized by multiple categories of bound labor, structured by ties of dependence, and maintained by deference. In this hierarchical and inherently unfree world, Boston’s slaves’ testimonies make clear they were more concerned with their everyday treatment and honor than with emancipation, as they pushed for autonomy, protected their families and communities, and demanded a place in society.
JF: Why do we need to read Unfreedom?
JH: The short answer is that historians and general readers interested in slaves and slavery will find Unfreedom unique and interesting in two ways. First, it is the first and only history of slavery in Boston. There are many works on slavery in New England, but none of them focus on Boston alone. Second, the book offers a new interpretative device for understanding slavery in the early modern Atlantic world: the continuum of unfreedom. This device allows us to understand the experiences of enslaved people living in a world characterized less by universal notions of individual liberty and more by multiple forms of dependence and oppression.
The longer answer is that Unfreedom moves slaves’ individual stories to the forefront of our discussion and understanding of slavery. In doing so, it makes an argument about the importance of context in understanding slavery and the lives of enslaved people. At the end of the day, Unfreedom demonstrates slaves and slavery cannot be divorced from that larger context. In the case of slaves in eighteenth-century Boston, they lived in a place quite different from our own and which had its own set of values, mores, and idiosyncrasies. It was a society where nearly 75% of the population lived in some state of dependence and where deference and understandings of traditional liberties and privileges structured the social order. Slaves were full members of this unfree world, which caused them to lay claim to a set of defensible rights, form communities across racial and class lines, find value and empowerment in their work, and appropriate communal institutions for their own use. Living in a world structured more by a continuum of unfreedom than by dichotomous conceptions of slavery and freedom, slaves often sought autonomy and to reshape the terms of their enslavement. Even if a slave won his or her legal freedom, liberty was always tenuous in a world that steadfastly refused to acknowledge black freedom. In this world where liberty could be just as fraught as slavery, then, Unfreedom demonstrates how enslaved Bostonians became masters of their status.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JH: Ha, this might be the hardest question of the interview! I think I sort of fell into it, but growing up in Ohio, I knew I wanted to be an educator and I loved history. Some of my fondest memories as a child involved history, such as my parents taking me on a road trip to Gettysburg when I was in 5th grade. Then, in high school, I had the opportunity to take college courses at the local branch campus of the Ohio State University. Despite having to take a number of required courses, all I wanted to study was History. When I transferred to Ohio Northern University as a freshman, I took a class in colonial American history. From the moment I first learned about the encounter between Native Americans and Europeans, the creation of settler colonies, and the rise of African slavery, I wanted to learn more and explore further. That passion for the history of the American colonies—and some great mentors along the way—has carried me through my undergraduate career, through graduate school, into a tenure-track job, and now through the publication of my first book.
JF: What is your next project?
JH: I am currently at work on two projects. The first is a short and accessible synthetic history of slavery and emancipation in early New England. The second is an exploration of fort construction across British North America between 1689 and 1715 to better understand the intersection of labor and empire in colonial America.
JF: Thanks, Jared!