How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Three

By the summer of 1777, Massachusetts had considered bills to end slavery and opted out. Many white Bay Staters did have increasingly serious objections to slavery, understanding it as in fundamental contradiction with their revolutionary project, but that only went so far. Understanding they had a potentially explosive issue on their hands, the Massachusetts House passed the buck to the Continental Congress by asking for advice. Congress gave none and it all died there. Meanwhile, Massachusetts whites continued human trafficking in the same papers that printed antislavery letters.

Shortly after that, the legislature got to work on a new constitution. Since that constitution would necessarily touch on fundamental rights, and antislavery whites hadn’t given up the cause. Nor had their enemies. This naturally resulted in a battle in the papers. William Gordon argued:

Would it not be ridiculous, inconsistent, and unjust, to exclude freemen from voting for representatives and senators, though otherwise qualified, because their skins are black, tawny, or reddish? Why not disqualified for being long-nosed, short-faced, or higher or lower than five feet nine? Are black, tawny or reddish skin is not so unfavorable an hue to the genuine son of liberty, as a tory complection?

In other words, why exclude patriotic non-whites from the polls when loyalist whites would clearly be allowed to vote? Surely the latter had far less fitness for the ballot in Revolutionary Massachusetts.

The records of the 1777-8 constitutional convention don’t seem to have survived in full, but what does shows that they debated citizenship for those people who lacked their discerning taste when they chose their skin color. A lengthy speech from the convention arguing for equality and for reconsideration of a vote to exclude non-whites from voting appeared in the September 23, 1779 Independent Chronicle.

The argument for white supremacy consisted in part of casting them as foreign, which the speaker would have none of:

What, unless it be their color, constitutes them foreigners? are they not Americans? Were they not (most of them at least) born in this country? Is it not a fact, that those who are not natives of America, were forced here by us, contrary, not only to their own wills, but to every principle of justice and humanity?

But he knew the actual lay of the land well enough:

there is one argument more which has been urged by gentlemen of the opposing side, as being of great weight and importance, which is this, “That by erasing this clause of the constitution, we shall greatly offend and alarm the Southern States. ” Should this be the case, Sir, it would be surprising indeed! But can it be supposed, Mr. President, that any of the sister States will be offended with us, because we don’t see fit to do that which they themselves have not done?

At the time, free black Americans who could meed property and wealthy qualifications could and did vote. Removing the franchise from them went hand in hand with extending it to poorer whites over the course of the nineteenth century.

Facts counted for little, though. The advance of white freedom demanded the sacrifice of non-white rights, as usual. The constitution of 1778 provided:

Every male inhabitant of any town in this State, being  free, and twenty-one years of age, excepting Negroes, Indians, and molattoes, shall be intitled to vote for a Representative or Representatives, as the case may be

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