How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Six

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

We left Massachusetts with the failure of the 1778 constitution, a victim more of indifference than contention over slavery. Yet whites still contended over slavery, to the point of rioting at the proposal to arm black men to fight the British. They seem to have contended rather less over the prospect of black men voting, though partisans did line up in favor of preserving the right for any wealthy enough to cast their ballot.

Nor did those who suffered under these injustices give up the fight. In early 1780, “several poor negroes and mulattoes” of Dartmouth petitioned with the claim that

we have been deprived of enjoying the profits of our labor or the advantage of inheriting estates from our parents, as our neighbors the white people do, having some of us not long enjoyed our own freedom; yet of late, contrary to the invariable custom and practice of the country, we have been, and now are, taxed both in our polls and that small pittance of estate which, though much hard labor and industry, we have got together to sustain ourselves and families withall.

This “hard usage” for people who had dearly won their freedom and maintained themselves with little, deserved protestation. The petitioners further added that keeping black Bay Staters in penury would soon “reduce us to a state of beggary” and “a burthen to others.” So the whites needed to get their house in order and do something, or they would be stuck with the problem anyway.

Your petitioners further show, that we apprehend ourselves to be aggrieved, in that, while we are not allowed the privilege of freemen of the State, having no vote or influence in the election of those that tax us, yet many of our color (as is well known) have cheerfully entered the field of battle in defence of the common cause, and that (as we conceive) against a similar exertion of power (in regard to taxation), too well known to need recital in this place.

Dear White Bay Staters, you tax your black neighbors without granting them a vote or any representation whatsoever. Does any of that sound familiar to you?

Though phrased as a humble request, complete with flattery of the white legislators’ “wisdom and power”, that language has an edge to it. Everyone reading the petition would know just how whites chose to redress their taxation without representation grievances. The petitioners don’t threaten, but referencing their own service in the war in such close proximity to the shared grievance didn’t happen by accident. They received no response.

Dartmouth’s black and multiracial residents did not take all this sitting down. They resisted the collection of taxes and wrote the selectmen in April of 1781 asking them

to put a stroke in their next warrant for calling a town-meeting, so that it may be legally laid before said town, by way of a vote, to know the mind of said town, whether all free negroes and mulattoes shall have the same privileges in this said town of Dartmouth as the white people have, respecting places of profit, choosing of officers, and they like

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