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own liberty. This sentiment seems to have operated on the minds of the citizens of this State, and in some of the country towns they voted to have no slaves among them, and to indemnifie their masters (after they had given them freedom) from any expence that might arise by means of their age, infirmities, or inability to support themselves.
The Declaration of Independence, in 1776, announces “that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, &c." This involves in it the idea, as expressed by an author, "that there are no natural distinctions among mankind, whereby one part of the species are entitled to privileges from which the other is excluded; for all alterations and distinctions among mankind wholly arise. from civil government, which has no other foundation than natural right; and natural right must, for this reason, be a principle of higher authority than civil government. Whenever, therefore, civil government tends to destroy and confound the rights of nature, it ceases to have any claim to obedience: it becomes corruption and despotism.'
Impressed with thoughts similar to these, the citizens in general relinquished the idea of a right in them to detain any of their species in slavery, and a general emancipation of slaves began now to take place. Some slaves took the liberty to free themselves, and left their masters (these were not considered as runaways, and apprehended as formerly); others requested freedom of their masters, and obtained it by their voluntary consent. Some few others, I believe, procured their liberty by legal process. In this manner, I take it, the abolition of slavery in the Massachusetts was effected.
The coloured people here demean themselves as orderly as might be expected, and are civilly treated by the whites, who employ them and pay them wages for their services; but there is a discrimination between the whites and blacks. The former are tenacious of their superiority, and it is rare for them to associate and mix together in company: whenever this happens, the whites are of the lower class of citizens. It is more rare for intermarriages to take place between them: very few instances of such connections can be found. The qualifications required by the Constitution of Massachusetts prevent the coloured people from being electors, or elected into a public office.
Here I finish all I had to say respecting slavery in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and shall detain you but a little longer.
In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, A.D. 1562, Sir John Hawkins, a noted sea commander (as the biographer of his life relates), engaged some gentlemen in England to be concerned with him in a voyage to Guinea, where, having arrived, he acquired 300 negro slaves by money, and, where that failed, by the sword: with these he sailed to Hispaniola, and, making a large profit, returned safe to England the next year." I write this for the sake of asking the questions, "Is not this the origin of the English slave-trade? or were any negroes brought from Guinea prior to the year 1562, by the English? I have seen a publication in 1769, which contains a particular account of the number of negroe slaves purchased in one year, viz., 1768, on the coast of Africa, from Cape Blanco to Rio Congo, by the different European nations, and they amount to 104,100 for that year. Of this number Great Britain and her dominions imported 59,400. These were bartered for European and Indian manufactures. The author of the above account says, "since that time, 1768, the Revolution of America seems to have inspired the different nations with more liberal sentiments. The natural rights of every individual of the human species is more clearly understood and attended to, and the slavery of the Africans strongly reprobated, that trade checked and on the decline" (in the European nations). England has set a good example by passing an act, in 1792, to abolish the slave-trade within a short period from that date.* For this Mr. Wilberforce, a worthy member of Parliament, is entitled to particular merit. We wish it may be followed by the other nations of Europe.
I have done, and believe you are glad of it. I fear your patience is exhausted, and must ask an excuse for leading you such a jaunt. I am, reverend sir,
Very respectfully yours,
REV. DR. BELKNAP.
* A bill for this purpose passed the House of Commons, in 1792, but was rejected by the Lords. The Abolition Act finally passed in 1807.-EDs.
+ Thomas Pemberton was born in 1728. He was an antiquary par excellence, and had an extensive knowledge of historical facts. His manuscript "Memoranda,
SAMUEL DEXTER TO DR. BELKNAP.
WESTON, March 19, 1795.
REV. SIR, Your letter of the 11th inst. is just come to hand. You cannot be tedious to me, while you are influenced by a desire to serve the interest of humanity. If the Africans who petitioned the General Court in 1773 and 1774 applied to Gov. Hutchinson, I consider it as a proof of what I before supposed, that the bill which passed the two Houses was presented to him. for his consent before he abruptly prorogued the Court. The negroes, I conclude, were informed of its being before him, and waited upon him to ask his favour. A number of the Court, myself among the rest, well knew he would not sign the act. I cannot be positive that I heard him say he had an instruction which forbad him, but that he said he could not sign an act against the slave-trade, as Bernard had said, in 1767, a number were not ignorant of, who, notwithstanding, were not the less forward to do themselves what they apprehended to be duty..
If the negroes petitioned Gage, I know not who could have advised them to the measure. He, as governour, had no power to serve their cause, but as a branch of the legislative; and the only General Court, while he was in the chair, was in 1774, which he adjourned to Salem, and there dissolved. During that short session, no such bill could have passed the two Houses. I, indeed, went home myself, having had the honour of being negatived by him, in company with Mr. Bowdoin and Dr. Winthrop; but the adjournment took place in a few days, and when the Court was at Salem no law was passed. The dissolution prevented it.*
Historical and Biographical," make about fifteen volumes. These he bequeathed to the Historical Society, of which he was one of the most active members. EDS.
* A bill, however, did pass at this short session; but, of course, was not signed by Gage. It was not for the abolition of slavery in the State, but to prevent the importation of negroes as slaves, similar to that which was passed the previous session, and which Hutchinson refused to sign. -Journal, 27, 41; Council Rec. MS., XXX. 294.
A number of rough drafts, or copies, of petitions of negroes, unsigned, written by very illiterate persons, as to handwriting and spelling, exist among the papers of Dr. Belknap. In most respects they seem to be based on the same model.
I am unable to say what was done by the Court in 1777, though I seem to have a recollection of having heard of something like what you mentioned as told you by Prince Hall. This is all I can say. I had been meditating a retreat from public business previous to my last negative in '74; and, though I was afterwards prevailed upon by the town of Dedham to represent them in what was called the Massachusetts Congress, from its origin till its dissolution, yet, when government (upon recommendation of the General Congress) was assumed in form, the offices of Governour and Lieutenant-Governour being considered vacant, I belonged to neither branch. Being in want of health, I refused a seat in the House of Representatives, when chosen by my town, and also, previous to the coming on of the election of councillors, wrote to desire I might not be considered as a candidate, giving my ill state of health as the reason of my declining a seat in council. Since that time, I have never been a public man, save four days in the House of Representatives, in 1785. As soon as the election of Mr. Bowdoin for Governour was accomplished, to assist in which was my only, inducement to go to court that year, I asked leave of absence for so long a time as it might suit my convenience to remain at home; which, having obtained, I left the representation of Dedham to my colleague, and never took a seat again
There is one among them drawn by a more skilful hand as to composition and penmanship, and includes an additional object in the prayer of the petitioners.
A fragment of a petition, dated June, 1773, is addressed to Governor Hutchinson and the Council and House. Another, dated May, 177— (the last numeral appears to have been altered once or twice, but from the heading of the paper its date must be 1774), is addressed to General Gage and the Council and House. Another is dated June, 1774, and is also addressed to Gage. A fourth is dated Jan. 13, 1777, and is addressed simply to the Council and House, there being then no Governor.
There is no reference in the petitions to the slave-trade. But the prayer is that an Act may be passed by the Legislature to liberate the enslaved, except the infirm and dependent; and, in two of them, that their children may share the same blessing when they shall arrive at the age of twenty-one years. In one of the petitions, it is asked in addition that some of the unimproved land of the Province may be set apart for the freedmen.
These petitions are all written on the same kind of paper, as to size, water mark, &c., as though they proceeded from one source. They are worn, torn, and crumpled. It is not improbable that Dr. Belknap procured them from some one person, perhaps the colored man, Prince Hall. Some one has written in pencil on the back of three of them, "Copy of petition." They are all printed further on, in this volume. - EDS.
during the year. I think I must have been tedious to you by my prolixity; but I wished to give a reason why I could not answer your last question.
In great haste, yours with perfect regard,
P. S. I have been disappointed of sending this letter, and open it to make an addition. A bill making provision, as Prince Hall related to you, might have been under consideration of the Court in 1777; but, had it been passed into a law, I think it probable some would have become free before the year 1780.* Yet I never heard of any negro, either male or female, before a slave, who asserted his or her right to freedom till the last mentioned year. If there are any journals of the House of Representatives for 1777, or of the Council, in being, they are probably in the Secretary's office. A recurrence to them will settle the question. The present Governour (then at Congress) was Secretary in 1776; and Perez Morton, Deputy Secretary. Perhaps, too, in the next year after. But the office of the present Secretary is the place where the journals are, or ought to be, deposited.
Addenda. If any such law as you mention passed in 1777, it ought to have been in the Statute Book of Perpetual Laws; if for no other reason, it should have been preserved in perpetuam rei memoriam for the honour of the court that passed it. But no such law is there; nor any other, that I know of, which passed while a majority of the Council administered in place of Governour. Those laws are now in sheets, and your friend Judge Sullivan will readily inform you whether such an one is among them.
But, had such a law been in being, the declaration in the Bill of Rights would not, in every case, have been solely relied
* Prince Hall and a few other negroes presented a petition, 18th March, 1777, for the abolition of slavery in the State. It was dated 13th January. A bill for that purpose was brought into the House on the 9th June, and debated, but it never became a law. Dr. Belknap seems by this letter to have been told that this bill did become a law. See Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society for September, 1868, pp. 332–334. — Eds.