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.

Furthermore

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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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.

“Do any sigh for a Thermopylae?”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

We left Charles Sumner again putting Washington City behind him; he took his oath for a second term in the Senate and then his leave. He came to defeat a tariff, did that, and went away again. Though he had physically healed, Sumner remained still weak and found even his brief time in the Senate trying. Given he returned to the scene of his torment, it can’t have helped his mental health either. The Senator confided to E.L. Pierce, compiler of his Memoir and Letters, from which I have gotten many recent quotations, that he meant to depart for Europe at the end of the then-present session of Congress anyway.

Sumner came up to New York City, arriving on March 6, 1857. He stayed with John Jay, the son of the founder. The Fremonts, late presidential losers, called upon him there. The next day, Sumner quit the continent. Well-wishers saw him off from the dock and a Republican club fired off a thirty-one gun salute. Sumner left behind two letters. A brief note thanked the governor and legislature of Vermont for passing resolutions in his honor. The other letter went off to James Redpath, a reporter in Kansas.

Almost a year had gone by since the capture of the free state leadership at the sack of Lawrence. The struggle had gone on. Sumner had kept up with the news out of the nation’s troubled territory, but he wrote long on generalities. He reaffirmed his opposition to slavery, as if anyone would doubt it, and hoped Massachusetts would see fit to help Kansas in his absence.

I trust, also, that the people of Kansas will stand firm, and that, if need be, they will know how to die for Freedom. Do any sigh for a Thermopylae? They have it in Kansas, for there is to be fought the great battle between Freedom and Slavery, -by the ballot-box, I trust; but I do not forget that all who destroy the ballot-box madly invoke the cartridge-box.

I have a friend who studies ancient Greek warfare and sighs every time Thermopylae comes up. Popular culture, in Sumner’s time and now, remembers it as a desperate, heroic stand for Greek freedom against Persian tyranny. The heroes of the day come in the form of three hundred Spartans, slaughtered to a man. Their more numerous allies don’t get mentioned much. You may recall a film adaptation of a not particularly good comic on the subject from about ten years ago, starring Spartans in their traditional garb of an opera cape and a furry speedo. The symbolism of a patriotic army defending its home from foreign invaders remains apt for Kansas. The details, particularly how the Spartans and their allies lost the battle, Sumner had to know from his education in Classics. Redpath may not have, or he and Sumner might both have felt the popular symbolism took precedence over historical accuracy. The Senator meant to cast antislavery Kansans as embattled defenders of freedom, not give them a close lesson on ancient history.

“I have sat in my seat only on one day.” Back to Washington

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Preston Brooks accomplished many things by breaking his cane over Charles Sumner’s head. He vindicated South Carolina and his elderly relative. He vented his personal rage. He had the great satisfaction of seeing a hated enemy prostrate. He won the acclaim of his constituents and his section. Gifts of canes flooded the mail. Brooks also saved Sumner’s career in the Senate. The coalition that elected him back in 1851 fell apart soon after. Both ambitious Republicans and Massachusetts’ governor angled to replace Sumner. His protracted disability could have sealed the deal, a fact which Sumner keenly appreciated, but instead the public outpouring of sympathy and the able politicking of the Bird Club of antislavery men kept him a Senator. He would ultimately die in office.

Sumner’s physical recovery progressed over the months. He looked healthier now, putting on some weight courtesy of all the bed rest, and seemed of sound mind again. As at Cresson, Sumner rode often for exercise, though he still struggled to walk even with a cane and mental exertion tired him greatly. His doctors advised him to go to Europe for a prolonged vacation. Instead, Sumner went to Washington, arriving late on February 25. The session would only last until March 4, but he made it.

Gentle Readers, if you recall John McCain’s return to the Senate this past fall after his cancer diagnosis you might know that he received warm applause from both parties. Antebellum Washington had its own gentleman’s club atmosphere, with politicians often socializing warmly in private whilst castigating one another in public. You might expect Sumner to get the same kind of welcome. The Republicans obliged, but the Democracy ignored him.

Sumner came back for a reason, beyond just showing himself. The Senate then considered a tariff that would cut the rates on raw materials. New England manufacturers wanted it badly. Sumner did not. The bill came to a vote and Sumner returned despite the strain, casting several votes between nine at night and two in the morning.

His return excited Sumner’s supporters, some of whom thought him likely to stay on. Theodore Parker wrote his hope for another grand antislavery speech, lamenting their lack since the Senator’s ordeal. Sumner had other ideas:

I have sat in my seat only on one day. After a short time the torment to my system became great, and a cloud began to gather over my brain. I tottered out and took to my bed. I long to speak, but I cannot. Sorrowfully I resign myself to my condition. […] my own daily experience, while satisfying me of my improvement, shows the subtle and complete overthrow of my powers organically, from which I can hope to recover only most slowly. What I can say must stand adjourned to another day. Nobody can regret this so much as myself.

Sumner took his oath of office for the new term on March 4, at the start of the special session to confirm James Buchanan’s nominees. He quit Washington again rather than stay on for that.

Re-Electing Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Senator Sumner returned to Boston in something resembling triumph. Though badly traumatized and still suffering from his assault by Preston Brooks, he came home a hero and a martyr. Sumner said a few words, in a much-diminished voice, in answer to his first reception. At the State House, he intended to try a longer oration. He made it through a halting sentence or so before calling it quits. Sumner lacked the volume and ability to go further, but naturally passed his copy over to the newspapers.

Though visibly still an disability and debilitated, Sumner opted for more than the usual pleasantries. He regretted his five months convalescing, which kept him from arguing freedom’s case before the Senate and the people. No one could have missed the subtext: Sumner did want to go back to the Senate and his term did end fairly soon. They should vote for the Republicans so he could, or otherwise consider themselves friends to slavery’s swift advance.

Spent, Sumner let the throng see him to the family home. There his mother waited. They took to a window and bowed to a cheering crowd before retiring. The public ordeal cost Sumner dearly. He complained of his usual pains, but not in vain; Massachusetts stuck with its fallen Senator when the polls opened. John C. Fremont, the Republican’s first presidential candidate, lost to James Buchanan but he carried Massachusetts with seventy thousand votes, fifty thousand more than went to Buchanan and Millard Fillmore (now running as a Know-Nothing) combined. Anson Burlingame squeaked by into a second term as well. Republicans swept the state elections. His visible infirmity even convinced the previously opposing Boston Herald to endorse him.

As customary at the time, Sumner pretended he had no interest in his own re-election. In private, he kept a close eye on Governor Gardner, Burlingame, and others who though Sumner’s chair entirely too empty. He would speak about resigning only to then mention those connivers who wanted to succeed him. If a good, reliable man stepped forward then Sumner might change his mind. He named Charles Francis Adams, confident that no one would get behind that ticket. When January came around and the new legislature met, Sumner promised he would resume his duties within the month. He had a duty and would persevere, despite his continued infirmity.

Henry Gardner (Know-Nothing-MA)

As in his previous election, Sumner could feign aloofness in part because friends worked avidly on his behalf. The Bird Club, a group of antislavery politicians and intellectuals founded by Sumner’s friend Frank Bird, worked behind the scenes to get the senate election safely concluded and their man another six years as soon as possible. That proved soon indeed; the Massachusetts House voted before Governor Gardner’s inaugural address arrived. Only twelve men voted against Sumner. The Senate took up his candidacy four days later and approved it on a unanimous voice vote.

 

A Boston Welcome for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner gave up convalescence at Cresson, Pennsylvania, and returned to Philadelphia. There he received bad news yet again: his doctor believed that Sumner must refrain from any physical or mental excitement if he wanted to live. Sumner kept up an active correspondence, but refused invitations to attend public meetings. Delivering a speech, especially to a crowd and in his customary style, might well be beyond his ability. A public failure like that would not have done much for his fragile mental and physical state.

Sumner may have stayed in Philadelphia for longer, but Anson Burlingame looked poised to lose re-election. Sumner did not approve at all of his accepting Brooks’ challenge, but already at Cresson he received the Congressman with obvious affection for the benefit of the reporters on hand. When that, plus a public letter of support, did not seem adequate, Sumner returned to Boston. Ostensibly he came for a grand reception, but really to campaign. Though he did decline the banquet offered, Sumner had to muddle through the rest.

On November 3, the festivities began with Sumner driven from Longfellow’s home to that of Amos Lawrence, benefactor of the Emigrant Aid Society and longtime foe of the Senator’s. There Sumner received a plethora of guests in the afternoon, who came up from the State House in eighteen carriages. They in due course put him into an open carriage and escorted him to the Boston city line. There, in 1824, Josiah Quincy met the aged Lafayette on his return tour of the United States. Now, the aged Josiah Quincy met Sumner.

Quincy praised Sumner at length before a crowd of seven hundred, closing with thanks to Heaven for keeping him around long enough to see the day. Sumner, still in his carriage, leaned forward and appeared greatly moved. The powerful voice necessary for an orator in the age before microphones and speakers, failed Sumner. Appearing “haggard and careworn, with languid eye and pale cheek,” he spoke briefly. The Senator called his suffering “not small” but he did it for duty’s sake and it paled before what the good people of Kansas still endured.

Then the show continued, with Sumner transferred to a new carriage drawn by six gray horses, joining the mayor of Boston and Quincy for a half-mile procession through cheering crowds and beneath banners hung to welcome him. The crowd might have grown to seven thousand, packing the streets, hanging from windows, and standing on rooftops to get a look at their hero. Men, women, and children through bouquets into the carriage.

Governor Gardner welcomed Sumner to the State House with a consciously apolitical speech. All Massachusetts stood with their maimed Senator, just not necessarily on matters of policy. Sumner had a proper speech ready to go in response, but he only managed a few lines before his endurance gave out. He had somewhat more after Quincy spoke, but between that, all the crowds, and movement, Sumner had had enough. He passed the copy to reporters on hand for printing.

“I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

We left Charles Sumner at a health spa up in the Alleghenies. There he continued to struggle with his recovery, but seemed at last on a slow mend. He looked forward to some time home in Massachusetts, though not the grand reception he expected. Sumner usually enjoyed the public eye, so his dread of it now speaks volumes to his state of mind. Walking still strained him and mental exertion gave him headaches.

At the spa, Sumner showed more troubling symptoms still. When tired, which must have happened frequently given the continuous references to his exhaustion, Sumner felt

as tho’ the blows were raining upon his head again; then will feel a numbness in the scalp; then again acute pains; then a sense of exhaustion that prevents any physical or mental effort.

We would say Sumner had flashbacks. He had trouble sleeping still and began to fear the loss of his faculties. The Senator now stared down the prospect of permanent disability, something he feared more than death. He wrote Joshua Giddings that

I sometimes am led to apprehend that I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.

George Sumner didn’t help matters by talking about cases of mental illness he observed in Parisian hospitals. Way to go, George. Dr. Wister, of Philadelphia, told Sumner that he couldn’t comment on whether the Senator suffered a brain “deranged organically or only functionally.” A functional disorder, someone might recover from. Actual brain injury? Maybe not. Sumner probably suffered both. He also became preoccupied with his symptoms, for which one can hardly blame him. Every time he fell short of his expectations, his body reinforced his fears.

Eventually, Sumner could take no more of the spa at Cresson. He wanted more engaging surroundings that could get his mind off his debilitated state and left, against the advice of the doctor there. Leaving took him back to Philadelphia and Dr. Wister. Once again he seems to have improved briefly, but then relapsed. He later wrote to the spa’s physician that he left too soon.

Come the end of September, Dr. Perry examined Sumner again and found his frailty largely unchanged. As before, he believed the Senator could not take much stress at all if he hoped to keep his life.

“His steps were feeble and tottering”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner declined to take any further part in Preston Brooks’ prosecution than grand jury testimony; he did not consider himself at all well. The psychological strain of revisiting the attack constantly, perhaps even in Brooks’ presence, can’t have appealed even when he felt physically better and Sumner rarely felt that. Visitors described him as a man much enfeebled, who may not make it. Francis Blair’s home in Silver Springs gave him some relief from Washington’s summer heat, but it remained close enough for a steady steam of visitors that further exhausted the Senator.

On July 5, Sumner returned to Washington City to put his affairs in order before departing for less demanding climes. That prompted a fresh bout of visitors, including both antislavery luminaries and members of the diplomatic corps. Edward L. Pierce’s Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner relates that the only administration men, excepting Lewis Cass who Sumner once befriended in Europe, stayed away. The parade of well-wishers can’t have helped, but Sumner left the city on July 7, staying the night in Baltimore before proceeding on to Philadelphia and Dr. Caspar Wister. At the time, Sumner expected to return to the Senate in August.

Dr. Wister examined Sumner on July 9 and found him in

A condition of extreme nervous exhaustion, his circulation feeble, and in fact every vital power alarmingly sunken. At that time his steps were feeble and tottering, as if in extreme old age; he complained of constant pain in the back and lower extremities, -in the latter it was a tired and weary sensation and he had a sense of construction and pressure about the head. At that time his pulse was quick and small, appetite language, and his sleep broken, disturbed, and unrefreshing. All the above conditions were heightened by exertion either mental or physical.

Wister recommended Sumner go to Cape May for relaxation. He spent a week there, improving, but then suffered another relapse. On July 22, he wrote to Giddings that he might resign his seat. Sumner still wanted to come back and resume his duties, but clearly doubted that he could. He abandoned Cape May for a health resort at Cresson, Pennsylvania. There, but he managed a daily ride on horseback, though he still struggled with walking. By mid-August, he could write -again to Giddings- that he hoped “to do good service in the coming campaign” for the presidency. The Republicans nominated John C. Fremont in June, with a sympathy vote going to Sumner for vice-president.

On August 28, Sumner wrote a friend that he had not made a full recovery,

but I ride on horseback, converse, read, write letters, and hope soon to be in working condition, though I fear that a perfect prudence would keep me from all public effort for some months to come.

Walking still exhausted him, but Sumner felt on the mend. He expected to return to Massachusetts soon, but dreaded the inevitable public welcome. He would rather “slip into Massachusetts, run about for a few days” and then maybe get on the stump.