The First Compensation for Slavery Awarded by Any Governmental Entity in the United States

An order signed by John Hancock as Governor of Massachusetts for the pension of Anthony Vassall, a slave who had filed a petition for compensation for slavery

His case is a famous one and inspired other suits, which led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts: his was the first petition for slavery compensation seriously considered, and the first granted after American independence ~ On the verso is Vassals’s mark, the earliest signature of a slave or former slave...

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The First Compensation for Slavery Awarded by Any Governmental Entity in the United States

An order signed by John Hancock as Governor of Massachusetts for the pension of Anthony Vassall, a slave who had filed a petition for compensation for slavery

His case is a famous one and inspired other suits, which led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts: his was the first petition for slavery compensation seriously considered, and the first granted after American independence ~ On the verso is Vassals’s mark, the earliest signature of a slave or former slave that we have ever seen reach the market

In 1742 Henry Vassall married Penelope Royall, daughter of Isaac Royall Sr., and together they moved to 94 Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Penelope had inherited from her father’s estate a Negro girl girl named Cuba (who was her maid), and some other slaves. Henry Vassall already had his own slave who served as a coachman, named Anthony, said to have been born in Spain in 1714, taken to Jamaica and then to Cambridge around 1741. When Anthony’s owner married Penelope, her young slave Cuba, of African descent, was married to Tony as he was called, a number of years her senior. As was common at the time, slaves were given the surname of their owners; hence Tony, Cuba, and their six children—Eliza, Abigail, Flora, Catherine, Darby, and Dorinda—were also “the Vassalls.” When Henry died in 1768, his widow sold Cuba and her children to her late husband’s nephew John Vassall Jr. at number 105 Brattle Street, later to become famous as Washington’s headquarters and the residence of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She kept Tony who oversaw the management of both households, showing his capabilities.

Then came the American Revolution. The wealthy white Vassall family were Loyalists, and when the war broke out they abruptly abandoned their Brattle Street mansions, their property including their slaves, and fled before the tide of revolution. The properties they left in Tony’s care; in fact the only Vassalls remaining on the estates were the family of Tony Vassall. Tony had moved his family into a small house on the Vassall property.

Pursuant to the Massachusetts Confiscation Act of April 30, 1779 (entitled “An Act to Confiscate the Estates of Certain Notorious Conspirators Against the Government and Liberties of the Inhabitants of…Massachusetts Bay), the property of Loyalists who had fled was subject to be seized by the state, and sold for its benefit. As “conspirators” who had fled, much of the Vassall’s property was in fact taken. But the existence of the Confiscation Act, its purpose to punish Loyalists by taking their property, and his position as custodian and operating manager of the estates, gave Tony Vassall a truly revolutionary idea: he had suffered through slavery for some 60 years, and now with his masters branded as enemies, he felt he was entitled to compensation from his master’s estate. He was still a slave at the point he determined to seek justice and take his cause to the state and people of Massachusetts, as slavery in that state still had a few years left before it puttered out.

In late 1780, just four years after American independence and a few months after the first state constitution of Massachusetts took effect, Tony Vassall petitioned the Commonwealth for the small house and one-and-a-half acres of abandoned Vassall land he and his family occupied as renters and taxpayers. In the petition, after pleading the merits of his and his wife’s case, and stating that “the earlier part and vigor of their lives” had been “in service to their several masters”, and naming the white Vassalls as those masters, he requested the legislature “would grant them a freehold in their premises and add one quarter of an acre of adjoining land to that which they now improve…” At the bottom of the petition John Avery, Secretary of the Commonwealth, notes that it was referred to a committee to look into the matter. This was the first petition for compensation for slavery in the United States, and the first serious consideration given to the question of such compensation.

The legislature did not grant him the confiscated land, but on February 6, 1781, it awarded him a pension of twelve pounds to be paid annually during his lifetime, the funds to come from the state treasury and be allocated from the moneys received from the sale of his former master’s confiscated properties. This was the first compensation for slavery awarded by any governmental entity in the United States. The resolution stated: “Resolved, That the prayer thereof be so far granted that the committee for the sale of confiscated estates in the county of Middlesex be, and are hereby directed, to pay out of the proceeds of the estate of John Vassal, Esq., late of Cambridge, in the county aforesaid, absentee, the sum of twelve pounds in specie, or a sum in bills of credit equivalent, to the said Anthony, taking duplicate receipts therefor, one of which to be lodged in the Secretary’s office. And it is further Resolved, That there be allowed and paid out of the public treasury unto the said Anthony, the like sum of twelve pounds annually for the above purpose until the further order of this Court.” It is interesting to note that in this first order, Anthony Vassall was referred to by first name only, reflecting his technical status as a slave. Yet it awarded him the money anyway. Later notices of the Anthony Vassall family utilized his full name.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts kept its promise to the Vassalls. Each year the governor would issue a pay order for the payment, and after Tony’s death in 1811 the legislature ordered that payments be continued to his wife Cuba.

Document signed, Boston, February 7, 1792, “By His Excellency the Governor”, to the state treasurer Alexander Hodgdon, being that year’s pay order. “You are by and with the Advice and Consent of Council, ordered and directed to pay unto Anthony Vassall, a Negro, late a servant to John Vassall esq. an absentee, the sum of Twelve Pounds in full for one year’s pension from 6th February 1791 to 6th February 1792 for his support to be paid from the proceeds of said estate in the Treasury agreeable to the resolve of 6th of February 1781 – for which this shall be his warrant.” It is signed by John Hancock as Governor and John Avery as Commonwealth Secretary.

On the verso Anthony Vassall has signed his mark, April 25, 1792, acknowledging that the sum was “received in full”. This is the earliest signature of a slave or former slave that we have ever seen reach the market, or can find on record as having done so. In short, this is an extraordinary, and in fact foundation, memento of the question of compensating slaves for their service and suffering, and of the end of slavery in the North. We have never seen anything like it before.

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