How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Two

We left Massachusetts in 1777, with white Bay Staters increasingly of the sentiment that they ought to do something to get rid of slavery. Among the writers pressing for some form of abolition, the contradiction between fighting for freedom and practicing slavery had become increasingly difficult to ignore. William Gordon expressed it well in an open letter of September 21, 1776:

The Virginians begin their Declaration of Rights with saying, ‘that all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive themselves or their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty.’ The congress declare that they’hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.’ The Continent has rang with affirmations of the like import. If these, Gentlemen, are our genuine sentiments, and we are not provoking the Deity, by acting hypocritically to serve a turn, let us apply earnestly and heartily to the extirpation of slavery from among ourselves. Let the State allow nothing beyond servitude for a stipulated number of years, and that only for seven or eight, when persons are of age, or till they are of age: and let the descendants of the Africans born among us, be viewed as free-born; and be wholly at their own disposal when one-and-twenty, the latter part of which age will compensate for the expense of infancy, education, and so on.

Gordon’s sentiment rings true. His letter came as part of the contagion of liberty sweeping the colonies. I have it in a copy of George Moore’s Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts, a middle nineteenth century work still much-beloved of the eighteenth century’s long-s. I’ve taken the liberty of fixing that for your convenience and I do proof any quotes I type out, but if I miss one and you end up reading about “flavery” and “fervitude”, please accept my apologies.

Besides the long-s, Notes includes reference to other letters on similar lines. Then, conscious even in 1866 that one might imagine Massachusetts as eternally antislavery, Moore devotes an entire page to contemporaneous ads selling and seeking slaves:

TO SELL-A Hearty likely NEGRO WENCH about 12 or 13 Years of Age, has had the Small Pox, can wash, iron, card, and spin, etc., for no other Fault but for want of Employ.

WANTED a NEGRO GIRL between 12 and 20 Years of Age, for which a good Price will be given, if she can be recommended.

To be SOLD, a large, commodious Dwelling House, Barn, and Outhouses, with any quantity of land from 1 to 50 acres, as the Purchaser shall choose within 5 miles of Boston. Also a smart well-tempered NEGRO BOY of 14 years old, not to go out of this State and sold for 15 years only, if he continues to behave well.

Obviously, some Bay Staters had good inoculations against the contagion of liberty. The House’s proposal for gradual emancipation, deferred pending the advice of Congress which never came and so buried it, speaks to a growing sentiment in agreement with Gordon’s. These ads speak to the opposite. The bill never came to a vote so we can’t say for sure if it would have passed, but given the natural inclination of enslavers to care far more about maintaining their human property than others did for stripping them of it we must harbor some doubt about abolition’s prospects. Further developments will add still more.

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