How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Five

Parts 1, 2, 34


The Massachusetts legislature wrote a new constitution for the state in 1778. Therein they removed the right to vote from any free black man who met the property qualifications that applied to white, and also kicked Indians and mixed-race people out of the voter lists. This prompted outrage from antislavery whites, who saw the whole business of slavery and disenfranchisement of men as hypocritical in light of the revolution that white Bay Staters embarked upon under the premise of universal rights. The legislature’s chaplain counted himself among the latter and opposed the constitution so heartily that they fired him for it.

While the legislature’s chaplain got in hot water with his employers, a Thomas Kench asked them to authorize recruiting black Americans for the military. Kench asked on the third of April, then wrote again on the second and shed some light on popular reception to the idea:

The letter I wrote before I heard of the disturbance with Col. Seares, Mr. Spear, and a number of other gentlemen, concerning the freedom of negroes, in Congress Street. It is a pity that riots should be committed on the occasion, as it is justifiable that negroes should have their freedom, and none amongst us be held as slaves, as freedom and liberty is the grand controversy that we are contending for; and I trust, under the smiles of Divine Providence we shall obtain it, if all our minds can but be united; and putting the negroes into service will prevent much uneasiness, and give more satisfaction to those that are offended at the thoughts of their servants being free.

In other words, Kench asked before he realized whites would riot over the question. The dissension among whites surprised and troubled him since he believed that unity would bring freedom for all. He went on to say that he would leave it there. He said his peace and understood that further discussion might “give offence.”

With all that in mind, one might expect the constitution to sail through ratification. Certainly non-whites had their white champions in Massachusetts, but enough Bay Staters went all-in for white supremacy to cause riots and make opponents drop the subject. Instead, the constitution failed. It appears to have faced general indifference rather than strong opposition, with many towns returning no votes at all. Boston and Cambridge came out unanimously against it. Dartmouth took pains to stress that while they disagreed with the the provisions excluding non-white men from the vote, they had no such voters among them. While the constitution failed, it doesn’t seem to have failed because of its white supremacy.

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