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11. There is much harmony between blacks and whites. We seldom have contentions, except in houses of ill-fame, where some very depraved white females get among the blacks. This has issued in the pulling down such houses at times, and caused several actions at Justices' Courts these two years past. Otherwise, they do not associate. Even religious societies, those not of public fellowship, are separate in the town of Boston. And, what is still more remarkable, white and black masons do not sit together in their lodges. The African lodge in Boston, though possessing a charter from England, signed by the Earl of Effingham, and countersigned by the Duke of Cumberland, meet by themselves; and white masons, not more skilled in geometry than their black brethren, will not acknowledge them. The reason given is that the blacks were made clandestinely in the first place, which, being known, would have prevented them from receiving a charter. But this enquiry would not have been made about white lodges, many of which have not conformed to the rules of Masonry. The truth is, they are ashamed of being on an equality with blacks. Even the fraternal kiss of France, given to merit, without distinction of colour, doth not influence Massachusetts masons to give an embrace less emphatical, or tender and affectionate to their black brethren. These, on the other hand, valuing themselves upon their knowledge of the craft, think themselves better masons in other respects than the whites, because Masonry considers all men equal who are free; and Massachusetts laws admit of no kind of slavery. It is evident from this that neither "avowedly nor tacitly" do the blacks admit the preheminence of the whites; but as evident that the preheminence is claimed by the whites.
In addition to the answer of the 4th query, Though the slaves were not in hard bondage, yet one thing implies the contrary to our reason and feelings. Lovers and friends were separated, and their children given away, with the same indifference as little kittens and young puppies. Upon the whole, they were less favorites.
* The Rev. John Eliot, D.D., was one of the founders of the Historical Society, and pastor of the New North Church, in Boston. He was one of Dr. Belknap's most intimate friends. This letter was written on the blank pages of the copy of the printed circular sent to him, and is the only copy of that circular preserved among the Belknap papers. - EDS.
SAMUEL DEXTER TO DR. BELKNAP.
WESTON, Feb. 23, 1795.
SIR, Your printed letter came to hand yesterday. Without regard to order or arrangement, I will write all that occurs to my mind on the subject of it, out of which you may, perhaps, cull something that you may be able to apply to a few of the queries of your benevolent correspondent, to whom you are desirous of affording assistance in his humane design respecting the emancipation of slaves in the State of Virginia.
I believe neither Neal nor Hutchinson have mentioned an African trade as carried on to any part of New England. I have turned to both indexes, and whirled over leaves, to no purpose. If any such trade really existed at an early period, I may have read something about it, but can now recollect nothing. It certainly never was, at any time, carried on to a great extent in Massachusetts. Adventurers from hence have been concerned in a trade from Africa to the West India Islands; but I know of none since Thomas Boylston (now in London) quitted it. McCarthy, and, I believe, Job Prince, were his captains; the former, divers voyages. Vessels from Rhode Island have brought slaves into Boston. Whether any have been imported into that town by its own merchants, I am unable to say. I have, more than fifty years ago, seen a vessel or two with slaves brought into Boston, but do not recollect where they were owned. At that time it was a very rare thing to hear the trade reprobated. Some disliked the custom of keeping negroes from prudential considerations; but the number was small indeed who had religious scruples. Such scruples were confined to the most liberal thinkers. People in general justified the trade on the persuasion that, without some degree of acquaintance with the doctrines of the Gospel, eternal misery in another state of existence was inevitable; and I doubt not it may be said with truth that the owners of slaves in Massachusetts were more careful to instruct them in what were then thought its doctrines, and more attentive to their morals, than their owners were in any other colony, unless, perhaps, Connecticut.
I know not how long Bishop Butler has been dead,* but (it may be 45 years since) William Vassal, Esq., who had a great number of slaves on his West Indian plantations, having scruples, wrote to the Bishop, as a casuist. He justified the practice of keeping them on Scripture ground; and Vassal, very willing to be convinced, acquiesced in the decision. It was said he once wrote to Thomas Chubb, the deist, on the same subject. What his verdict was, I never heard.
About the time of the Stamp Act, what before were only slight scruples in the minds of conscientious persons became serious doubts, and, with a considerable number, ripened into a firm persuasion that the slave-trade was malum in se. Pieces against it appeared in newspapers, and some pamphlets were written.
March 4, 1767, a bill, intitled "An Act to prevent the importation of slaves into this Province," was read a first time in the House of Representatives. On a second reading, the next day, it was committed for alteration. On the 13th it appeared again, and was read a first time under the title of “ An Act for preventing the unnatural and unwarrantable custom of enslaving mankind in this Province, and the importation of slaves into the same." On a second reading (the 16th) † a vote for a third reading did not obtain; but a committee was appointed to bring in a bill for laying a duty on slaves imported. Such a bill was brought in the next day, intitled "An Act for laying an impost on the importation of negro and other slaves into this Province," and read a first and second time, and on the 18th read a third time, and passed to be engrossed. I was then a member of the House, and active for the bills under every form. The Council made many amendments, the House nonconcurred, and thus died the bill. Had it passed both Houses, Gov. Bernard would not have signed it. The duty was laid high. This was only an attempt at "legislative discouragement" of slavery. There never was so much as an attempt made at any other time, before nor since, that I have heard of. This will,
* He died in 1752. EDS.
† The second reading appears, by the Journal of the House, to have been on the 14th; but the appointment of a committee to bring in a bill for the impost was on the 16th, as stated. EDS.
in a measure, apply to the 3d query under the 3d general division of queries.
The gentleman inquires (5th division) respecting the mode by which slavery was abolished. The query may be answered thus: It never was formally and expressly abolished. There never was either "a general and simultaneous emancipation,' nor one at different periods," nor were "persons born after a particular period declared free.'
To the 1st query under the 6th division, viz., "At what period was slavery wholly abolished?" what follows is a complete answer: In the year 1780, by the first article in the Declaration of Rights, when the Constitution of Massachusetts was ratified. These are a part of the words of that article: “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." There are similar articles in the declaration of rights of New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
Soon after the establishment of the Constitution of Massachusetts, one negro after another deserted from the service of those who had been their owners, till a considerable number had revolted. Some of them were siezed and remanded to their former servitude. Certain individuals of these brought actions against those who had been their masters, and the success of the negroes in these suits operated to the liberation of all who did not voluntarily remain with their former owners. Many did so, on account of their age and infirmities, or because they did not know how to provide for themselves, or for some pecuniary consideration. Thus ended slavery in Massachusetts.
The answer to the 7th and 8th general division of queries is that those who were formerly slaves are now, in all respects, in the same state and condition with the whites.
I am unable to say any thing to the 9th general division.
To the 10th I say, "intermarriages between the blacks and whites" are very rare "oftener between black men and white women than the contrary."
To the 11th I answer that, in country towns, "harmony in general prevails between blacks and white citizens"; yet, though they associate together, the latter consider themselves as "preeminent," which is "tacitly admitted" by the former.
I can say nothing with respect to the maritime towns, save that in Boston there is a lodge of free and accepted masons, the brethren of which are all negroes. Whether they modestly decline mixing with whites in the public processions of the fraternity, or whether they occasionally desire admittance as visiting brothers at other lodges, are questions I cannot decide. They cannot be denied without violating the spirit and design of the institution. I speak as a brother, but I have not been present at a lodge for more than twenty-five years. With much regard, sir, Your most obedient servant,
SAMUEL DEXTER TO DR. BELKNAP.
WESTON, Feb. 26, 1795.
SIR, I am almost ready to ascribe it to my being advanced in life that I should have no recollection, at the time of writing my letter of the 23d inst., of what engaged my attention so much in the years '73 and '74. After the bearer had been gone a few hours, I took up a pamphlet which I had not looked into for several years, and found I had noted upon the outside leaf that it was given to me by Mr. Newton Prince, lemon merchant, in the name and at the desire of a number of negroes, then petitioners to the General Court. At the head of these was Felix Holbrook. While the petition remained undecided upon, I was called out of the Council Chamber, and very politely presented with the pamphlet by Newton, who, after making his best bow, said that the negroes had been informed I was against the slave-trade, and was their friend. He had several more to give to particular members of the House of Representatives. Upon my returning into the chamber, I boasted, as I have since, that I was distinguished from all the other members of council by this mark of respect.
* Samuel Dexter was a merchant in Boston, subsequently residing in Dedham. In the political struggles just before the Revolution, he was repeatedly elected to the Council, and was often negatived by the royal governor for his patriotic zeal. He bequeathed $5,000 to Harvard College to encourage Biblical criticism. His son, bearing the same name, was the distinguished Secretary of War of the United States. He died in 1810, aged eighty-four. - Eds.