How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Four

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left Massachusetts with the constitution of 1778. After some debate, the legislature chose to restrict the vote to free white men and take no action against slavery in the Bay State. In other words, they proposed greater restrictions upon free black Americans than then existed and enough of the convention felt slavery should continue to overwhelm those who thought it ought to end. This prompted attacks upon the constitution by antislavery whites, with our old friend Dr. Gordon speaking up once more:

The complexion of the 5th Article [which restricted the franchise] is blacker than that of any African; and if not altered, will be an everlasting reproach upon the present inhabitants, and evidence to the world, that they mean their own rights only, and not those of mankind, in their cry for liberty.

A cynic or proslavery person could argue that Gordon grasped the point exactly. Neither, he castigated the legislature for its unprecedented innovation: No other colony denied a free man who could meet property qualifications the vote. White men then faced the same qualifications, so while white supremacy and slavery ensured that a far smaller portion of the black population could meet the bar, those lucky few could cast their vote in all thirteen colonies at the time of Gordon’s writing. He called the move to the contrary a “public scandal.”

Gordon then raised the example of Jamaica’s maroon society, composed of enslaved people who freed themselves by force and managed to maintain their freedom long enough that King George II sent men to negotiate a peace with them which granted them that freedom. For people rebelliong against what they deemed British tyranny, that had to rankle.


The exception of Indians is still more odious, their ancestors having been formerly proprietors of the country.

Nineteenth century antislavery men rarely had that particular scruple.

Al that said, Gordon moved on to the prohibition on bi-and mult-racial men voting. Just how did the convention intend to make that work? Did the children of those people inherit the disability, so long as they had a single drop of the suspect blood in their veins, down “to the hundredth generation”?

Gordon wrote all of this in public, in the newspapers, while serving as chaplain of the legislature. He had been present for at least some of the debates. He opened sessions with prayers. He knew the principals, at least professionally. If he would write this for public consumption, one can only imagine how forthright he got in person. They had enough and fired him, effective April 4th or 6th, 1778. Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts gives both dates. As Gordon served as chaplain to both houses, presumably they fired him on different dates.

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