How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Seven

John Adams

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

The failed constitution of 1778 doesn’t seem to have done so much as slow down discussion of the slavery question in Massachusetts. Black Bay Staters kept petitioning for their rights. Whites argued against the constitution in part because it denied those rights. But continued debate did not lead to an easy or straightforward resolution. As late as 1795 whites did not agree whether their laws permitted black men to hold office or vote. It seems that some may have, but the number who could meet the property qualification remained so small that they left only tenuous evidence behind.

That takes us far beyond Quock Walker and the issue of slavery, though. Returning to that, we must go back to 1778. The failed constitution meant that the Bay State needed to have another go-around, electing a convention in summer of the next year. They got to work in Cambridge at the start of September, and soon decided they needed a bill of rights. At least one town, Pittsfield, told the man it elected that he could not accept any constitution that didn’t have a bill of rights which prohibited slavery.

The convention tasked writing their bill of rights to a committee, then voted themselves a vacation from September 6 to October 28 while that committee did its work. The thirty-member committee adjourned to Boston and promptly voted most of themselves a vacation, tasking the job to Samuel and John Adams and James Bowdoin. They in turn agreed that John Adams should do the main draft. He consulted with some clergymen on the article he wrote concerning religion, but otherwise did it all himself. The part that concerns us now comes right at the start:

All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights: among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting their property; in fine; that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

The convention accepted Adams’ draft with only stylistic changes:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

The Massachusetts constitution with Adams’ bill of rights went to the voters, who ratified it. At the end of October, 1780, it went into effect.

In theory, that might settle it. If all men were born free and equal, none could be born into slavery. The convention wrote it into the constitution and the voters agreed. So did a series of Bay State legal minds in later years, though none of them could say so with complete certainty. Late in life, Daniel Webster admitted that he couldn’t put a date on the end of slavery. Nor could judges in the 1830s. The convention debates, so far as we know, don’t address the issue. John Adams, while opposed to slavery, also opposed immediate emancipation. Neither he nor the men who wrote the rest of the constitution seem to think they freed anyone at the time.

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