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.


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

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Two

We left Massachusetts in 1777, with white Bay Staters increasingly of the sentiment that they ought to do something to get rid of slavery. Among the writers pressing for some form of abolition, the contradiction between fighting for freedom and practicing slavery had become increasingly difficult to ignore. William Gordon expressed it well in an open letter of September 21, 1776:

The Virginians begin their Declaration of Rights with saying, ‘that all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive themselves or their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty.’ The congress declare that they’hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.’ The Continent has rang with affirmations of the like import. If these, Gentlemen, are our genuine sentiments, and we are not provoking the Deity, by acting hypocritically to serve a turn, let us apply earnestly and heartily to the extirpation of slavery from among ourselves. Let the State allow nothing beyond servitude for a stipulated number of years, and that only for seven or eight, when persons are of age, or till they are of age: and let the descendants of the Africans born among us, be viewed as free-born; and be wholly at their own disposal when one-and-twenty, the latter part of which age will compensate for the expense of infancy, education, and so on.

Gordon’s sentiment rings true. His letter came as part of the contagion of liberty sweeping the colonies. I have it in a copy of George Moore’s Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts, a middle nineteenth century work still much-beloved of the eighteenth century’s long-s. I’ve taken the liberty of fixing that for your convenience and I do proof any quotes I type out, but if I miss one and you end up reading about “flavery” and “fervitude”, please accept my apologies.

Besides the long-s, Notes includes reference to other letters on similar lines. Then, conscious even in 1866 that one might imagine Massachusetts as eternally antislavery, Moore devotes an entire page to contemporaneous ads selling and seeking slaves:

TO SELL-A Hearty likely NEGRO WENCH about 12 or 13 Years of Age, has had the Small Pox, can wash, iron, card, and spin, etc., for no other Fault but for want of Employ.

WANTED a NEGRO GIRL between 12 and 20 Years of Age, for which a good Price will be given, if she can be recommended.

To be SOLD, a large, commodious Dwelling House, Barn, and Outhouses, with any quantity of land from 1 to 50 acres, as the Purchaser shall choose within 5 miles of Boston. Also a smart well-tempered NEGRO BOY of 14 years old, not to go out of this State and sold for 15 years only, if he continues to behave well.

Obviously, some Bay Staters had good inoculations against the contagion of liberty. The House’s proposal for gradual emancipation, deferred pending the advice of Congress which never came and so buried it, speaks to a growing sentiment in agreement with Gordon’s. These ads speak to the opposite. The bill never came to a vote so we can’t say for sure if it would have passed, but given the natural inclination of enslavers to care far more about maintaining their human property than others did for stripping them of it we must harbor some doubt about abolition’s prospects. Further developments will add still more.

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part One

I’m sorry for the lack of posts, Gentle Readers. I felt a bit ill over the weekend and then my mother had cataract surgery on Monday. That’s put me behind on several things but has given me occasion to revisit something I meant to do more of and fell away from. Welcome back to Deep Dives, where we go back in time far past the usual late Antebellum to look at the history of American slavery.

In those later decades, we think of Massachusetts as resolutely antislavery. The state practiced slavery at one point and conservative elements within it always remained inclined to make excuses, but we can reasonably call it a state that aligns firmly on the antislavery left. How it got from a state which enslaved people to one that did not receives little scholarly attention, even though we believe that it did so with an instantaneous, uncompensated abolition much like enacted in 1865. Some of that comes down to slavery lasting longer in the American South and the vastly larger scale of the institution there. We should also probably grant that the Revolution draws a tremendous amount of scholarly attention away from anything near to it. But that still leaves us with a remarkable story.

John Adams

In 1780, Massachusetts wrote a new constitution which included a bill of rights written by John Adams. His draft received some style tweaks by a committee and the convention accepted it. Article I reads:

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.

An enslaved man named Quock Walker sued for his freedom under that provision in 1783. The Massachusetts courts agreed with him. The 1790 census shows no slaves in Massachusetts. Therefore Walker killed slavery in the Bay State and, retroactively, it was abolished with the adoption of the new constitution in 1780. Thereafter, Massachusetts assumed its place as the leading bastion of freedom. The records indicate a more complicated story and ambiguous story, as usual.

As soon as revolutionary rhetoric with its talk of natural rights began to circulate, black Americans insisted it ought to apply to them as well. White antislavery men agreed, but the flurry of speeches and petitions generated only limited action. The state House formed a committee to look into the conditions facing black Bay Staters in the fall of 1776. Spring brought about a few bills for abolition, with a gradual emancipation proposal gaining some steam. We don’t know how it would have gone down because the House drew up short of a final vote, instead asking Congress for an opinion:

from an apprehension that our brethren in the Other Colonies should conceive there was an impropriety in our determining on a question which may … be of extensive influence, without previously consulting your Honors

Congress, which had a war to run and absolutely no inclination to touch such an explosive issue if it meant to keep the South fighting the British, refused to answer. With no approval forthcoming, the Massachusetts House approved a petition asking for abolition and went no farther.

Governor Shannon Receives News from Pottawatomie

John Brown

News of John Brown’s murders along the Pottawatomie got out fast. We’ve followed it reaching his son’s militia company and through the arrest of his uninvolved sons, John, Jr., and Jason. That necessarily gave us a look at word reaching Sterling Cato, who ordered up the arrest of the Browns and so consummated one of their longstanding fears. But news also reached further in Kansas, as the general alarm indicated. Proslavery men feared that Brown would continue his murders night by night. They could dream up legions of bloody-minded abolitionists coming for them and their families. Governor Shannon learned of the massacre thrice over, in letters he copied to Franklin Pierce as part of his explanation for all that had gone wrong at Lawrence. He explained to the president that “Comment is unnecessary.”

Shannon presented Cato’s letter from Paola first:

DEAR SIR: You will have learned, perhaps before this reaches you, that Mr. Allen Wilkinson, Mr. Doyle and two sons, and Mr. Sherman, all of Franklin county, were on Saturday night last most foully and barbarously murdered. There can be no doubt of the fact that such murders have been perpetrated, and that the community, as I understand, generally suspect that the Browns and Partridges are the guilty parties. I shall do everything in my power to have the matter investigated and there seems to be a disposition on the part of the Free-State men in Franklin to aid in having the laws enforced.

I have never elsewhere heard of the Partridges, Gentle Readers. No one by that name played a role in the killing, though their inclusion speaks to the general confusion about who had done what in the immediate aftermath.

Wilson Shannon

Cato did not delude himself here. The murders shocked many free state men, who felt obligated to denounce them and commit themselves to bringing the guilty to justice. Probably most of those felt a combination of genuine abhorrence toward the brutal murders of men taken unresisting from their beds and fears that the proslavery hammer would come down on everyone. More on this in future posts.

The judge told Governor Shannon that he would get the evidence he needed and issue warrants forthwith, promising the officers bound to serve them “all the aid necessary to execute the law.” In other words, Cato might have made promises that Shannon would need to keep or share some responsibility for. He had no army himself, nor delegated command of the United States Army in the area. He had to, the Governor should understand, because

These murders were most foully committed in the night-time by a gang of some twelve or fifteen persons, calling on, and dragging from their homes, defenseless and unsuspecting citizens, and murdering, and, after murdering, mutilating their bodies in a very shocking manner.

Everyone involved denied that the Browns mutilated bodies, but no one in Kansas had CSI to put the Doyles, Wilkinson, or Dutch Bill Sherman into a magic machine and cough up a neat dating of the injuries. Hacking people up with swords makes a mess regardless of one’s intentions. Shooting someone did not leave them less dead, but did tend toward a less gory spectacle. Though Brown chose the blades for stealth, the ruin they worked served better than bullets might have in his goal of spreading general terror among proslavery Kansans.

For the fear of John Brown

John Brown

Jason Brown blundered into a posse out to arrest him on his way to Lawrence. He meant to stop at Ottawa Jones’ and then proceed to surrender himself in friendly circumstances. That would, he must have hoped, spare him the fate of Reese Brown. Instead, he walked right up to a group of armed Missourians. Expecting that they wouldn’t know him, he asked directions and got what may have been the final surprise of his life in learning that they did. Some quick questioning confirmed it, at which point they collected his money and a revolver before ordering him out in front of the group for a clear shot.

With nothing left to lose, and probably more than a little of his father’s forthrightness, John Brown’s second son declared himself an abolitionist, bared his breast, and dared them to shoot. That took things too far for some of the Missourians, who put their guns down. Others would have gone ahead, but their leader called it off and took Jason prisoner instead. The combination of bravery and a revulsion toward killing unresisting white men likely did the trick.

The Missourians marched Jason off toward Sterling Cato’s court at Paola. He had more rest than his elder brother had the night before, but after several days with the Pottawatomie Rifles on little sleep, then the stress of learning what his father and brothers had done, proved too much for Jason’s body. During a rest, he sat down and fell dead asleep. That prompted a new round of threats on his life after the Missourians roused Jason, but he kept on making antislavery speeches and it seemed to have an effect on a few of them. They saw to it that Jason had a good bed and gave back his money and gun once the group arrived in town.

At Paola, Jason found his older brother, John. He also got to see firsthand the fear that his father’s murders had spread among the proslavery party. The day after he and John got put into a room with two guards, after spending some time playing cards, Jason hit the hay. John remained up a little longer, then climbed in with him. John Junior woke to

the sudden opening of the outside door and the rushing in of a number of men with drawn bowie-knives. Seizing the candle, and saying, ‘Which are they?’ they crowded around our bed with uplifted knives.

Telling the story afterward, Junior has Jason still dead asleep. Confronted with murderous men and fearing a torturous death for his brother, Junior opted for a novel solution:

I opened the bosom of his shirt, and pointing to the region of his heart, said, ‘Strike here!’

Maybe Junior meant it just as he said; others have made such terrible calculations. His fragile mental state must have played a part too. Either way, he dared them to do it quickly. Such challenges rely on people not ready to do what they propose, a dangerous gamble given the circumstances and the stakes. The presence of testimony from Jason tells us that he survived the night, but it may have come down to fear rather than an attack of conscience:

At this moment the sudden and loud barking of dogs outside and a hurrying of steps on the porch caused a most lively stampede of our assailants within, and this attack was ended without a blow.

The proslavery men had a note from the boys’ father, or at least what purported to be one. It came to them from the hands of one of their own and therein Brown declared that he knew they had Junior and Jason. When the dogs raised the alarm, they believed John Brown had come and raced to defend themselves. They left the brothers in peace for the rest of the night.


The Arrest of Jason Brown

John Brown

The posse took John Brown, Jr., not far from the home of his aunt and uncle. He came up and approached a group of soldiers, with the Missourians and federal marshal out of sight. They appeared in due course, making for a most unwelcome surprise. Judge Sterling Cato, informed of the murders that Brown’s father and brothers committed, issued warrants for everyone’s arrest. He even swept up an unrelated man named O.C. Brown. Brown deemed resistance “out of the question” in the face of professional soldiers and “a large number” of Missourians. The group took him back toward Paola, where Cato had his court. Along the way, the soldiers split off to make for a separate camp, leaving John Brown’s eldest in the hands of the proslavery men. There he met some familiar faces. Cato issued warrants for H.H. Williams, who had replaced Brown in charge of the Pottawatomie Rifles, and he arrived at Paolo ahead of Brown. So had his brother Jason.

Jason Brown parted ways with his father on the morning of May 26, rejoining his family at the Adair’s just as John Junior had. The murders his father and brothers committed on the night of May 24-25 weighed on him. The Adairs almost didn’t give them shelter and told him and Junior that their presence put the family at risk. All that in mind, Jason set off on foot on the morning of the 27th, hoping to reach Lawrence by way of Ottawa Jones’ and turn himself in to United States troops. In a friendly setting and in the hands of a neutral party, he might not have much to fear. According to Sanborn’s Brown biography, he first saw trouble when he looked off in the direction of Paola and spotted a dozen Missourians riding toward Brown’s Station.

The Missourians’ course intersected with Jason’s. He went right up and asked the way to Jones’ place, apparently gambling that they wouldn’t know him.

The leader of the party with an oath exclaimed: “You are one of the men we’re hunting for;” and levelled his rifle at him. Jason stood still, and the men began to question him rapidly. “What is your name?” “Jason Brown.” – “the son of old John Brown?” “Yes.” – “Are you armed?” “Yes, with a revolver.” – “Give it up. Have you any money?”

Jason had a few dollars and handed it over to the Missourians. All of this seems to have put Jason amid the party. After they collected his gun and money, they ordered him out in front of them. There they could get a clean shot, which Jason realized.

so he stepped backward, facing them, opened his bosom, and said: “I am an Abolitionist; I believe that slavery is wrong, and that Kansas ought to be a free state. I never knowingly harmed any man in the world. If you want to take my blood for believing in the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence, do it now.”

The dramatic show of courage and conviction, which they would probably have understood as “manhood,” moved a few of the Missourians to lay down their rifles. The others remained trained on Jason, but their leader felt otherwise. Martin White told Brown:

“Well, we won’t shoot you now, but make a  prisoner of you.”

The Arrest of John Brown, Junior

John Brown

John Brown’s namesake son hid out in the woods. There Junior’s frayed nerves made him a man, by his own account, not quite in his right mind. Mounted on a horse he might have suspected belonged to men his brother’s and father killed, knowing that men already hunted him as a likely conspirator on the killings, the whole world must have seemed set against him. The arrival of his brother Owen, who had hacked men to death with their father the night prior, can’t have helped with the strain. Owen came, rejected at his Aunt’s home, his own stolen horse wet with swat, and carrying urgent and further traumatic news:

he told me of the narrow escape he had just had from a number of armed proslavery men who had their headquarters at Tooley’s, -a house at the foot of the hill, about a mile and a half west of Mr. Adair’s. Their guards, seeing him in the road coming down the hill, gave a signal, and at once the whole gang were in hot pursuit.

Not only did men hunt the Browns, they had come within two miles and nearly caught one. Only superior, purloined horseflesh kept Owen from their grasp. Owen traded his spent animal for John Junior’s and rode off to rejoin their father. Junior spent a sleepless night in the woods and came out in the morning, seeking the Adairs again. He

was there but a few moments when there suddenly rode up a number of United states cavalry, whom I was quite willing to see; but while in conversation with them a large number of mounted Missourians came up also, and with them the United States Marshal, whom I knew, but did not wish to see.

Given how Missourians and posses had worked for Lawrence, which Junior had seen the aftermath of only days before, nothing about that meant good news to him. Less still when the Marshal read him a warrant that charged him with treason. With that formality taken care of, the cavalry informed John that they had not come in their official capacity as soldiers, but rather as members of the same posse. The warrant came from the court of Sterling Cato, now at Paola, thus realizing one of the fears the Browns had when he opened up shop at Osawatomie: he meant to have them behind bars after all.

News of the Pottawatomie murders threw Paola into a chaos that disrupted Cato’s court. He questioned militia members who had visited the sites, wrote a report for Governor Shannon, and launched a proper investigation of his own. Free state militia men answered his questions and all fingered the Browns, Weiner, Thompson, and Townsley. Once he got going, Cato decided to make a clean sweep of things and also indicted the Browns and several others for resisting the collection of the bogus legislature’s taxes.

A Vile Murderer and Two Stolen Horses

John Brown


Deeply troubled, to the point where he considered himself insane, John Brown’s namesake son left his Aunt Florilla, Samuel Adair, and his brother Jason to vanish into the woods and hide. Word had reached them that proslavery men wanted the Brown’s locked up, at best, and a general manhunt had begun. Jason remained behind at the cabin. Samuel Adair only granted the two Browns temporary shelter on their word that they had nothing to do with their father’s murders and impressed on them that that he and his wife risked their lives doing it. From him, we learn that a third Brown boy called at the Adair place that night, Owen.

Owen Brown, unlike his brothers, had committed bloody murder beside the Pottawatomie. His and Salmon Brown’s hands wielded the swords that claimed the lives of James, William, and Drury Doyle at least. Owen wept afterwards, but his tears could not undo the killing. He knocked at the cabin door around two or three in the morning. Jason informed Samuel Adair of everything he knew about the murders, so he did not receive a warm welcome:

“You are a vile murderer, a marked man!” said he. “I intend to be a marked man!” shouted Owen, and rode away – on one of the murdered men’s horses.

Jason told it that way and his version makes sense in light of everything else he and John say about the Adairs that night. Blood and general compassion counted for a lot, but they would not share their roof and fire with killers. John Junior adds a bit more:

I took my rifle and horse and went into the ravine on Mr. Adair’s land, remaining there through that day (May 27 )and the following night.. About four o’clock P.M. I was joined by my brother Owen, who had been informed at Mr. Adair’s of my whereabouts. He brought with him into the brush a valuable running horse, mate of the one I had with me.

According to Jason, Owen rode a horse taken from the Shermans. John Junior has both their mounts seized by Free State men up toward Nebraska, so in proslavery country, and swapped for other animals, apparently on the grounds that someone nearby would recognize them. John came to his horse just the previous day, not far from Ottawa Jones’. Except for the notion that the horses came down from near Nebraska, that all would fit for John Junior to have with him one of the horses that his father and brothers stole. Probably he did and they didn’t tell him the whole truth about where it came from or Junior couldn’t put it together with all the strain.

“Can’t keep you here.”

John Brown

News of John Brown’s murder spree got out quickly, reaching his son’s militia company before Brown and the others could return to it. The fallout from John Junior’s inconsistent response to the word and his freeing of two enslaved people turned his men against him and the Pottawatomie Rifles elected a new captain before everyone dispersed. Brown had two sons in Kansas not with him for that bloody night, the aforementioned namesake and Jason. Jason pressed the matter with his brother, Frederick, and then told his father that he could not approve of such killing. Brown took that hard, but refused to reconsider. His band of avengers broke off from the rest of the group near to Middle Creek and set off toward Junior and Jason’s cabins. They themselves set out for Osawatomie to collect their wives and children from Samuel Adair’s.

On the 26th of May, according to Junior, he and Jason arrived at Adair’s. They stayed the night and on the morning of the 27th got more disturbing news:

a pretended Free-State man, was heading a party to capture us, Mr. Adair did not consider it prudent for us to stay longer, and advised us to secrete ourselves in a ravine on his place well filled with small undergrowth. He told us he had received word that the United States Marshal had warrants for us and all of our family.

Jason has people out to make a name for themselves by nabbing John Brown already thick on the roads, but it seems that news first reached them of the fact at the Adair claim. In his version, related in Villard’s biography, they come to the cabin around nine at night. Adair answered the door, armed, and asked who knocked. The Browns identified themselves:

“Can’t keep you here. Our lives are threatened. Every moment we expect to have our house burned over our heads.”

Jason begged shelter, offering to take even a berth in the outhouse. The conversation drew Mrs. Adair, the boys’ Aunt Florilla. She asked if they had anything to do with the killings. They had not, so she agreed to let them in but told them that the Adairs hazarded their lives by doing it. They took a pair of mattresses on the floor, beside the bed, and talked until midnight. Jason told them all he had learned about the killings while John groaned.

Up for a few days by this point, just deprived of his command and seeing his political friends turn on him, plus news that his father and brothers committed an already infamous crime, pushed John Junior past his breaking point. He confided to his Aunt that he felt himself going insane. He couldn’t sleep, despite his fatigue. Jason repeated Adair’s advice that Junior take to the timber land and hide, which he did.