The rise of free commonwealths.
freedom is of all races and of all nationalities.
is in them all older than bondage, and ever rises again from the enslavements laid on by the hand of violence or custom or abuse of power; for the rights of man spring from eternal law, are kept alive by the persistent energy of constant nature, and by their own indestructibility prove their lineage as the children of omnipotence.
In an edict of the eighth of August, 1779, Louis
the Sixteenth announced ‘his regret that many of his subjects were still without personal liberty and the prerogatives of property, attached to the glebe, and, so to say, confounded with it.’
To all serfs on the estates of the crown he therefore gave back personal liberty, security in the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor, with the rights of family and inheritance.
It was his wish to do away, as
with torture, so with every vestige of a rigorous
feudalism; but he was restrained by his respect for
the laws of property, which he held to be the groundwork of order and justice.
The delivering up of a runaway serf was in all cases forbidden; for emancipation, outside of his own domains, he did no more than give leave to other proprietors to follow his example, to which, from mistaken selfishness, even the clergy would not conform.
But the words of the king spoken to all France
deeply branded the wrong of keeping Frenchmen in bondage to Frenchmen.
In Oberyssel, a province of the Netherlands, Baron
van der Capellen tot den Pol, the friend of America
, had seen with the deepest sorrow the survival of the ancient system of villanage; and, in spite of the resistance and sworn hatred of almost all the nobles, he, in 1782, brought about its complete abolition.
Here the movement for emancipation during the American
revolution ceased for the old world.
‘He that says slavery is opposed to Christianity is a liar,’ wrote Luther in the sixteenth century.
‘The laws of all nations sanction slavery; to condemn it is to condemn the Holy Ghost
,’ were the words of Bossuet
near the end of the seventeenth.
In the last quarter of the eighteenth, the ownership of white men by white men still blighted more than the half of Europe
The evil shielded itself under a new plea, where a
difference of skin set a visible mark on the victims of commercial avarice, and strengthened the ties of selfishness by the pride of race.
Yet at that time the United States
, as a nation, wished treaties of the most perfect friendship and commerce with the emperor of Morocco.
In England Edmund Burke
seemed to be singled out to lead an impassioned warfare
against negro slavery; and in 1780 he tasked
himself to find out what laws could check the new form of servitude which wrapt all quarters of the globe in its baleful influences.
Deliberating calmly on what could be done, and reverenced by one-half of his countrymen as an oracle on questions of liberty, he did not see a glimmering of hope even for an abolition of the trade in slaves, and only aimed at establishing regulations for their safe and comfortable transportation.
He was certain that no one of them was ever so beneficial to the master as a freeman who deals with him on equal footing by convention, that the consumer in the end is always the dupe of his own tyranny and injustice; yet he suggested nothing more for slave plantations than some supervision by the state, and some mitigation of the power of the master to divide families by partial sales.
for himself inclined to a gradual emancipation; yet his code for the negroes was founded on the conviction that slavery was ‘an incurable evil.’
Overborne by the opinion of those around him, he sought only to make it as small an evil as possible, and to draw out of it some collateral good.
George the Third was the fast friend of the slavetrade; and Thurlow, one of his chancellors, so late as 1799 insisted that slavery was sanctioned by Scripture, and that the bill to terminate the slave-trade was ‘altogether miserable and contemptible.’
Yet the quality of our kind is such that a government cannot degrade a race without marring the nobleness of human nature.
So long as the legislation of the several English colonies in America
remained subject to the veto
of the king, all hope of forbidding or even limiting
the bringing of negro slaves into them was withstood by the mother country.
Now that they were free, the end of slavery might come either from the central government or from the several states.
We have seen how the first congress formed an
association ‘wholly to discontinue the slave-trade,’ and also how the denunciation of the slave-trade and of slavery by Jefferson
in his draft of the declaration of independence
was rejected by the congress of 1776
in deference to South Carolina
A few days later, in the earliest debates on the plan of confederation, the antagonism between the northern and southern states, founded on climate, pursuits, and labor, broke out on the first effort to unite them permanently.
When members from the north spoke freely of the evil of slavery, a member from South Carolina
declared that ‘if property in slaves should be questioned, there must be an end of confederation.’
In the same month, the vote on taxing persons claimed as property laid bare the existence of a territorial division of parties; the states north of Mason
's line voting compactly on the one side, and those south of that line which were duly represented, on the other.
The clashing between the two sections fastened
the attention of reflecting observers.1
1778, soon after the reception at Philadelphia
an envoy from France
, he reported to Vergennes
‘The states of the south and of the north under existing subjects of division and estrangement, are two distinct parties, which at present count but few deserters.
The division is attributed to moral and philosophical causes.’
He further reported that the cabal against Washington
found supporters exclusively in the north.
The French minister desired to repress the ambition of congress for the acquisition of territory, because it might prove an obstacle to connection with Spain
; and he found support in northern men. Their hatred of slavery was not an impulse of feeling, but an earnest conviction.
No one could declare himself more strongly for the freedom of the negro than Gouverneur Morris
of New York, a man of business and a man of pleasure.
His hostility to slavery brought him into some agreement with the policy of Gerard
, to whom one day in October he said that Spain
would have no cause to fear the great body of the confederation, for reciprocal jealousy and separate interests would never permit its members to unite against her; that several of the most enlightened of his colleagues were struck with the necessity of establishing a law ‘de coercendo imperio,’ setting bounds to their
jurisdiction; that the provinces of the south already
very much weakened the confederation; that further extension on that side would immeasurably augment this inconvenience; that the south was the seat of wealth and of weakness; that the poverty and vigor of the north would always be the safeguard of the republic; and that on this side lay the necessity to expand and to gain strength; that the navigation of the Mississippi
below the mouth of the Ohio
should belong exclusively to Spain
, as the only means of retaining the numerous population which would be formed between the Ohio
and the lakes; that the inhabitants of these new and immense countries, be they English or be they Americans
, having the outlet of the river St. Lawrence
on the one side and that of the Mississippi
on the other, would be in a condition to domineer over the United States
and over Spain
, or to make themselves independent,—that on this point there was, therefore, a common interest.
Some dread of the relative increase of the south may have mixed with the impatient earnestness with which two at least of the New England
states demanded the acquisition of Nova Scotia
as indispensable to their safety, and therefore to be secured at the pacification with England
The leader in this policy was Samuel Adams
, whom the French
minister always found in his way.
The question of recruiting the army by the enlistment of black men forced itself on attention.
The several states employed them as they pleased, and the slave was enfranchised by the service.
Once congress touched on the delicate subject; and in March, 1779, it recommended Georgia
Carolina to raise three thousand active, able-bodied
negro men under thirty-five years of age; and the recommendation was coupled with a promise of ‘a full compensation to the proprietors of such negroes for the property.’
The resolution appears to have been adopted without opposition, North
and South Carolina
having both been represented in the committee that reported it. But South Carolina
refused by great majorities to give effect to the scheme.
So long as Jefferson
was in congress he kept Virginia
in a close and unselfish union, of which the unanimous assertion of independence was the fruit.
When he withdrew to service in his native commonwealth, their friendship lost something of its disinterestedness.
manifested its discontent by successive changes in its delegation, and the two great states came more and more to represent different classes of culture and ideas and interests.
On observing congress thus ‘rent by party,’ Washington
‘raised his voice and called upon George Mason
to come forth to save their country.’
In 1779, when the prosperity of New England
had been shown to depend on the fisheries, and when pathetic appeals, not unmingled with menaces, had been used prodigally and without effect, Samuel Adams
said rashly, that ‘it would become more and more necessary for the two empires to separate.’
On the other hand, when the north offered a preliminary resolution, that the country, even if deserted by France
, would continue the war for the sake of the fisheries, we have seen four states read the draft of a protest declaring peremptorily
that, if the resolution should be adopted, they would
withdraw from the confederation.2
In the assertion of the sovereignty of each separate state, there was no distinction between north and south. Massachusetts
expressed itself as absolutely as South Carolina
As a consequence, the confederation could contain no interdict of the slave-trade, and the importation of slaves would therefore remain open to any state according to its choice.
When on the seventeenth of June, 1779, a renunciation of the power to engage in the slave-trade was proposed as an article to be inserted in the treaty of peace, all the states, Georgia
alone being absent, refused the concession by the votes of every member except Jay
The rigid assertion of the sovereignty of each state
fostered mutual jealousy.
, the French
envoy who succeeded Gerard
, soon came to the conclusion that the confederacy would run the risk of an early dissolution if it should give itself up to the hatred which began to show itself between the north and south.
, whose laws from the first never bore with slavery, knocked steadily at the door of congress to be taken in as a state.
In August, 1781, its envoys
were present in Philadelphia
, entreating admission.
Their papers were in order; the statesmen of New York gave up their opposition; and congress seemed well disposed to admit the applicant: but resistance developed itself in the states of the south; for it was held by them that the admission of Vermont
would destroy ‘the balance of power’ between the two
sections of the confederacy, and give the preponder-
ance to the north.
The idea was then started, that the six states south of Mason
's line should be conciliated by a concession of a seventh vote which they were to exercise in common: but the proposal, though it formed a subject of conversation, was never brought before congress; and Vermont
was left to wait till a southern state could simultaneously be received into the union.
In regard to the foreign relations of the country, congress was divided between what the French
envoy named ‘Gallicans’ and ‘anti-Gallicans:’ the southerners were found more among the ‘Gallicans;’ the north was suspected of a partiality for England
There was no hope of the delivery of the country from the anomaly of slavery by the concurrent action of the members of congress.
It was but a minority of them who kept in mind that an ordinance of man can never override natural law, and that in the great high court of the eternal Providence
justice forges her weapon long before she strikes.
What part was chosen by each separate state must be recounted.
In no one state did its constitution abridge the power of its legislature over slavery, even to its total abolition.
In no one constitution did the word ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ find a place, except in that of Delaware
, and there only by way of a formal and perpetual prohibition.
They are found as little in that of South Carolina
(which was already the leading champion of negro bondage) as in that of Massachusetts
In the north the severity of the climate, the poverty of the soil, and the all-pervading habit of laborious industry among its people, which grew out of the
original motives to their emigration and was the char-
acter of all their development, set narrow limits to slavery; in the states nearest the tropics it throve luxuriously, and its influence entered into their inmost political life.
with soil and temperature and mineral wealth inviting free and skilled labor, yet with lowland where the negro attained his perfect physical development, stood as mediator between the two.
Many of her statesmen—George Mason
, Patrick Henry
, Richard Henry Lee
—emulated each other in their confession of the iniquity and inexpediency of holding men in bondage.
We have seen the legislature of colonial Virginia
in 1772, in their fruitless battle
with the king respecting the slave-trade, of which he was the great champion, demand its abolition as needful for their happiness and their very existence.
In January, 1773, Patrick Henry
threw ridicule and con-
tempt on the clergy of Virginia
for their opposition to emancipation.
In that same year, George Mason
, demanding improvements in the constitution of the Old Dominion, addressed to its legislature these memorable words:
Mean and sordid, but extremely short-sighted and foolish, is thatself-interest which, in political questions, opposeth itself to the public good: a wise man can no other way so effectually consult the permanent welfare of his own family and posterity as by securing the just rights and privileges of that society to which they belong.
Perhaps the constitution may by degrees work itself clear by its own innate strength, the virtue and resolution of the community, as hath often been the
case in our mother country.
This last is the natural remedy, if not counteracted by that slow poison which is daily contaminating the minds and morals of our people.
Every gentleman here is born a petty tyrant.
Practised in acts of despotism and cruelty, we become callous to the dictates of humanity and all the finer feelings of the soul.
Taught to regard a part of our own species in the most abject and contemptible degree below us, we lose that idea of the dignity of man which the hand of nature hath planted in us for great and useful purposes.
Habituated from our infancy to trample upon the rights of human nature, every generous, every liberal sentiment, if not extinguished, is enfeebled in our minds; and in such an infernal school are to be educated our future legislators and rulers.
The laws of impartial Providence may even by such means as these avenge upon our posterity the injury done to a set of wretches whom our injustice hath debased to a level with the brute creation.
These remarks were extorted by a kind of irresistible, perhaps an enthusiastic impulse; and the author of them, conscious of his own good intentions, cares not whom they please or offend.
When the constituent convention of Virginia
adopted their declaration of rights as the foundation of government for themselves and their posterity, they set forth in the words of George Mason
, that all men are by nature equally free and have inherent rights; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, the means of acquiring property and pursuing happiness: yet the authoritative proclamation of the equal rights of all men brought no immediate relief to the enslaved.
In 1778, Virginia
prohibited what, under the su-
premacy of England
, she could not have prohibited, —the introduction of any slave by land or sea, and ordered the emancipation of every slave introduced from abroad.
But the bill respecting resident slaves, prepared by the three commissioners for codifying the laws, was a mere digest of existing enactments.
Its authors agreed in wishing that the assembly might provide by amendment for the freedom of the afterborn; but the thought bore no fruit, and was moreover blended with the idea of their deportation.
The statute drafted by Jefferson
, and in 1779 proposed by Mason
to define who shall be citizens of Virginia
, declared the natural right of expatriation in opposition to the English
assertion of perpetual allegiance, and favored naturalization; but it confined alike the right of expatriation and citizenship to white men.
In 1780, Madison
expressed the wish that black
men might be set free and then made to serve in the army.
And this was often done by individuals.
Before the end of the same year, Virginia
offered a bounty not of money and lands only, but of a negro to each white man who would enlist for the war.
In May, 1782, just thirteen years after Jefferson
had brought in a bill giving power of unconditional emancipation to the masters of slaves, the measure was adopted by the legislature of Virginia.
Under this act more slaves received their freedom than were liberated in Pennsylvania
or in Massachusetts
Even had light broken in on Jefferson
's mind through the gloom in which the subject was involved for him, Virginia
would not have accepted from him a plan for making Virginia
a free commonwealth; but there is no evidence
that he ever reconciled himself to the idea of
emancipated black men living side by side with white men as equal sharers in political rights and duties and powers.
The result of his efforts and reflections he uttered in these ominous forebodings: ‘Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.’
In bondage to these views, Jefferson
was not competent to solve the problem; and so early as 1782, in the helplessness of despair, he dismissed it from his thoughts as a practical question, with these words: ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep for ever.
The way, I hope, is preparing under the auspices of Heaven for a total emancipation.’
At that time Washington
was a kind and considerate master of slaves, without as yet a title to the character of abolitionist.
By slow degrees the sentiment grew up in his mind that to hold men in bondage was a wrong; that Virginia
should proceed to emancipation by general statute of the state; that, if she refused to do so, each individual should act for his own household.
Next in order comes Delaware
, which on the twentieth of September, 1776, adopted its constitution as
an independent state.
In proportion to its numbers, it had excelled all in the voluntary emancipation of slaves.
Its constitution absolutely prohibited the introduction of any slave from Africa
, or any slave for sale from any part of the world, as an article which ‘ought never to be violated on any pretence whatever.’
But, beyond this, Delaware
left the progress
of emancipation to the good — will of the slave-holders.
In the constituent convention of New York, Gouverneur Morris
struggled hard for measures tending to abolish domestic slavery, ‘so that in future ages every human being, who breathed the air of the state, might enjoy the privileges of a freeman.’
The proposition, though strongly supported, especially by the interior and newer counties, was lost by the vote of the counties on the Hudson
‘The constitution,’ wrote Jay
, on its adoption in 1777, ‘is like a harvest cut before it is ripe; the grain has shrunk;’ and he lamented the want of a clause against the continuance of domestic slavery.
Still the declaration of independence
was incorporated into the constitution of New York; and all its great statesmen were abolitionists.
It has already been narrated that, in 1777, the
people of Vermont
, in separating themselves formally and finally from the jurisdiction of New York, framed a constitution which prohibited slavery.
In July, 1778, William Livingston
, the governor of New Jersey
, invited the assembly to lay the foundation for the manumission of the negroes.
At the request of the house, which thought the situation too critical for the immediate discussion of the measure, the message was withdrawn.
‘But I am determined,’ wrote the governor, ‘as far as my influence extends, to push the matter till it is effected, being convinced that the practice is utterly inconsistent with the principles of Christianity and humanity; and in Americans
, who have almost idolized liberty, peculiarly odious and disgraceful.’
Of the two Jerseys, slavery had struck deeper root in the East
from the original
policy of its proprietaries; the humane spirit of the
Society of Friends ruled opinion in West Jersey
The name of Pennsylvania
was dear throughout the world as the symbol of freedom; her citizens proved her right to her good report by preparing to abolish slavery.
The number of their slaves had grown to be about six thousand, differing little from the number in Massachusetts
, and being in proportion to the whole population much less than in New York or in New Jersey
In 1777, in the heads of a bill proposed by the council, a suggestion was made for ridding the state of slavery.
The retreat of the British
, and the restoration to Pennsylvania
of peace within its borders, called forth in its people a sentiment of devout gratitude.
Under its influence, George Bryan
, then vice-president, in a message to the assembly of the ninth of November, 1778, pressed upon their attention the bill proposed in the former year for manumitting infant negroes born of slaves, and thus in an easy mode abrogating slavery, the opprobrium of America
‘In divesting the state of slaves,’ said Bryan
, ‘you will equally serve the cause of humanity and policy, and offer to God one of the most proper and best returns of gratitude for his great deliverance of us and our posterity from thraldom; you will also set your character for justice and benevolence in the true point of view to all Europe
, who are astonished to see a people struggling for liberty holding negroes in bondage.’
On becoming president of the executive council of Pennsylvania
, Joseph Reed
, speaking for himself and the council, renewed the recommendation to abolish slavery gradually and to restore and establish by the
law in Pennsylvania
the rights of human nature.
the autumn of 1779, George Bryan
had been returned as a member of the assembly.
In the committee to which on his motion the subject was referred, he prepared a new preamble and the draft of the law for gradual emancipation; and on the twenty-ninth of February, 1780, it was adopted by a vote of thirty-
four to twenty-one.
led the way towards introducing freedom for all. ‘Our bill,’ wrote George Bryan
to Samuel Adams
, ‘astonishes and pleases the Quakers.
They looked for no such benevolent issue of our new government, exercised by presbyterians.’
The Friends, well pleased at the unexpected law, became better reconciled to the form of government by which they had been grievously disfranchised.
The constitution of South Carolina
of 1778 contained no bill of rights
, and confined political power exclusively to white men; but from the first settlement of the state, slavery formed a primary element in its social organization.
When Governor Rutledge
in 1780 came to Philadelphia
, he reported that the negroes, who in the low country outnumbered the whites as six to one, offered up their prayers in favor of England
, in the hope that she would give them a chance to escape from slavery.
But British officers, regarding negroes as valuable spoil, defeated every plan for employing them as soldiers on the side of England
The puritans of Massachusetts
and their descend-
ants, though they tolerated slavery, held that slaves had rights.
Laws on marriage and against adultery were applied to them; and they were allowed, like
others, to give their testimony even in capital cases.
At the opening of the revolution, William Gordon
, the congregationalist minister of Roxbury
, though he declined to ‘unsaint’ every man who still yielded to the prevailing prejudice, declared with others against perpetuating slavery, and in November, 1776, published in the ‘Independent Chronicle’ a plan sent from Connecticut
for its gradual extermination out of that colony.
In the same month and in the same newspaper, ‘a son of liberty’ demanded the repeal of all laws supporting slavery, because they were ‘contrary to sound reason and revelation.’3
In January, 1777, seven-negro slaves joined in petitioning the general court ‘that they might be restored to that freedom which is the natural right of all men, and that their children might not be held as slaves after they arrive at the age of twenty-one years.’
This petition was referred to a very able committee, on which are the names of Sergeant
and John Lowell
, both zealous abolitionists; the latter then the leading lawyer in the state.
In May, 1777, just before the meeting of the general court at Boston
, finding in the multiplicity of business before the general court the only apology for their not having attended to the case of slaves, as a preliminary to total emancipation asked for a final stop to the public and private sale of them by an act of the state.
Clothing the argument of Montesquieu
in theological language, he said: ‘If God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the earth, I can see no reason why a black rather than a white man should
be a slave.’
A few weeks later, the first legislature
elected in Massachusetts
after the declaration of independence
listened to the second reading of a bill which declared slavery ‘without justification in a government of which the people are asserting their natural rights to freedom,’ and had for its object ‘to fix a day on which all persons above twenty-one years of age then held in slavery should be free and entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities that belong to any of the subjects of this state.’
A committee was directed to take the opinion of congress on the subject, but no answer from congress appears on record, nor any further consideration of the bill by the Massachusetts legislature.4
In his presidency, Hancock
had shown proclivities to the south.
When on his resignation in October a motion was made to give him the thanks of congress for his impartiality in office, the three northernmost states of New England
voted in the negative, while the south was unanimous in his favor.
After his arrival in Boston
, the two branches of the general court saw fit to form themselves into a constituent convention, for which some of the towns had given authority to their representatives.
In the winter session of 1778, the draft of a plan of government
was taken into consideration.
One of the proposed clauses took from Indians
, negroes, and mulattoes the right to vote.
Against this disfranchisement was cited the example of Pennsylvania
, which gave the suffrage to all freemen.
‘Should the clause not be reprobated by the convention,’ said an orator, ‘I still hope that there will be found among the people
at large virtue enough to trample under foot a form
of government which thus saps the foundation of civil liberty and tramples on the rights of man.’
Another clause confined the highest offices to Protestants.
On the submission of the constitution to the people, objections were made that it contained no declaration of rights; that it gave the governor and lieutenant-governor seats in the senate; that it disfranchised the free negro, a partiality warmly denounced through the press by the historian, William Gordon
There was, moreover, dissatisfaction with the legislature for having assumed constituent powers without authority from the people.
, while it recommended a convention for framing a constitution, gave its vote unanimously against the work of the legislature; and the commonwealth rejected it by a vote of five to one.
The history of the world contains no record of a people which in the institution of its government moved with the caution which now marked the proceedings of Massachusetts
In February, 1779, the
legislature of the year asked their constituents whether they desired a new form of government; and a large majority of the inhabitants of the towns voting in the affirmative, a convention of delegates was elected for the sole purpose of forming a constitution.
On the first day of September, the convention thus chosen came together in the meeting-house of Cambridge
Their forefathers, in their zeal against the Roman
superstition, had carried their reverence of the Bible
even to idolatry; and some of them, like Luther, found in its letter a sanction for holding slaves.
On the other hand, from principle and habit, they honored
honest labor in all its forms.
The inconsistencies of
bondage with the principle of American independence lay in the thoughts of those who led public opinion; voices against it had come from Essex
, from Worcester
, from Boston
, from the western counties, showing that the conscience of the people was offended by its continuance.
The first act of the constituent body was ‘the consideration of a declaration of rights;’ and then they resolved unanimously ‘that the government to be framed by this convention for the people of Massachusetts Bay
shall be a free republic.’
This resolution was deemed so important, that liberty was reserved for the members of a committee who were absent to record their votes upon it; and on the next morning they declared ‘their full and free assent.’
A committee of thirty, composed for the commonwealth at large and for each county excepting the unrepresented county of Dukes
, was appointed to prepare a declaration of rights and the form of a constitution.
But the house itself continued its free conversation on these subjects till sunset of the sixth of September.
The next day it adjourned for more than seven weeks, that its committee might have time to transact the important business assigned them.
On the thirteenth of September, the committee assembled at the new court-house in Boston
Among them were Bowdoin
, who was president of the convention; Samuel Adams
; John Lowell
; Jonathan Jackson
, who thought that the liberty which America
achieved for itself should prevail without limitation as to color; Parsons
, a young
lawyer of the greatest promise, from Newburyport
and Strong of Northampton
had arrived opportunely from France
, to which he did not return till November; and was so far the ‘principal’ agent in writing out the first draft of the constitution, that it was reputed to be his work.
There are no means of distributing its parts to their several authors with certainty.
No one was more determined for two branches of the legislature with a veto in the governor than John Adams
To him also more than to any other may be ascribed the complete separation of both branches from appointments to office.
The provisions for the total abolition of slavery mark the influence of John Lowell
was due the form of some of its most admired sections.’
On the afternoon of the twenty-eighth of October, the committee appointed to prepare a form of government reported a draft of a constitution; and on the next day the convention adopted the first article of a declaration of rights, which was couched in the spirit and almost in the language of George Mason
: ‘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 lawyers of Virginia
had not considered this declaration as of itself working the emancipation of negro slaves; to accomplish that end, the men of Massachusetts
, in deciding how many of their old laws should remain in full force, excepted those parts which
were ‘repugnant to the rights and liberties contained
in this constitution.’
As the delegates gave the closest attention to every line and word in the constitution, this clause did not come up for consideration till the last day of January, 1780, in an adjourned session.
Roads having been made for a time impassable by deep snows, there were still many absentees; and, though a quorum was present, the consideration of this question was from its importance deferred.
For a month, therefore, other clauses were discussed and settled; and then in a full convention, after deliberation and amendment, this most momentous article of all was adopted.
So calm and effortless was the act by which slavery fell away from Massachusetts
Its people wrought with the power of nature, which never toils, never clothes violence with arms, but achieves its will through the might of overruling law. There is in the world a force tending to improvement, and making itself felt within us and around us, with which we can work, but which exists independently of us, and which it is above our ability to call into being or to destroy.
The manner in which Massachusetts
left slavery behind, as of the dead and irrevocable past, was the noblest that could have been devised.
The inborn, inalienable right of man to freedom was written in the permanent constitution as the law of all coming legislation.
The highest voice of morality speaks to the whole universe of moral being, and utters for all its one inflexible command.
When by its all-persuasive force the men of Massachusetts
abolished slavery, the decision had the character of primal justice and the seal of undying authority.
they remained dependent, the veto of the British
king would have prevented their abolition of slavery, as it had prevented every measure for abolishing or restricting the slave-trade.
In an able address to their constituents, the delegates explained the grounds on which their decisions rested, and called on them in their several towns and plantations to judge ‘whether they had raised their superstructure upon the principles of a free common-wealth.’
Reassembling on the first Wednesday in June, they found that the male inhabitants of twenty-one years and upwards had ratified the new constitution, and they chose the last Wednesday
in October for the day on which it should take effect.
At the coming in of the twenty-fifth of October, 1780, Massachusetts
became in truth a free common-wealth.
Its people shook slavery from its garments as something that had never belonged to it. The colored inhabitants, about six thousand in number, or one in seventy of the population, equally became fellow-citizens; and, if any of them possessed the required qualifications of age, residence, and property, their right to vote admitted of no question.
As to the rights of conscience, it was agreed that ‘religion must at all times be a matter between God and individuals;’ from office those only were excluded who believed that a foreign prelate could have a dispensing power within the commonwealth, and who would not ‘disclaim those principles of spiritual jurisdiction which are subversive of a free government established by the people.’
The legislature and magistrates were charged to cherish literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially
the university at Cambridge
, public schools, and
grammar-schools in the towns.
The constitution was marked by the effort at a complete separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers, that it might be a government of laws and not of men. ‘For a power without any restraint,’ said the convention, ‘is tyranny.’
‘The constitution of Massachusetts
,’ wrote Count Matthieu Dumas
, one of the French
officers who served in America
, ‘is perhaps the code of laws which does most honor to man.’
As if to leave to the world a record of the contrast between the contending systems of government for colonists, the British
ministry, simultaneously with the people of Massachusetts
, engaged in forming its model.
The part of Massachusetts
between the river Saco
and the St. Croix
was constituted a province, under the name of New Ireland.
The system adopted for Quebec
and for East Florida
was to receive in the New England
province its full development.
The marked feature of the constitution was the absolute power of the British parliament; and, to make this power secure for all coming time, every landlord on acquiring land, whether by grant from the crown, or by purchase, or by inheritance, was bound to make a test declaration of allegiance to the king in his parliament, as the supreme legislature of the province.
The attorney and solicitor general of Great Britain
were to report what of the laws of England
would of their own authority take effect in the province, and what acts of parliament the king might introduce by his proclamation.
‘It has been found,’ said the state paper, ‘by sad experience,
that the democratic power is predominant
in all parts of British America.’
‘To combat the prevailing disposition of the people to republicanism,’ there was to be by the side of the governor and council no elective assembly until the circumstances of the province should admit of it; but a middle branch of legislature, of which every one of the members was to be named by the crown, to be distinguished by titles or emoluments, or both; and, though otherwise appointed for life, to remain ever liable to be suspended or removed by royal authority.
As a farther security to aristocratic power, the lands were to be granted in large tracts, so that there might be great landlords and a tenantry.
The church of England was to be the established church; the country to be divided into parishes, each with a glebe land; and the governor, the highest judge in the ecclesiastical court, to present to all benefices.
A vicar-general with a power to ordain was to open the way for a bishop.
No provision was made for the establishment of schools or the education of the people.
This constitution was approved by the cabinet on the tenth of August, 1780, and on the next day by the king.
Pleased with their work, the ministers judged the proper time might have come to digest a system of government for all America
Here were the two models side by side.
The one would have organized self-government, the other arbitrary rule; the one a people of freeholders, the other of landlords and tenants; the one public worship according to the conscience and faith of individuals,
the other a state religion subordinate to
temporal power; the one education of all the people, the other indifference to human culture.
It remains to be related, that in the year 1780 the methodists of the United States
at their general meeting
voted ‘slave-keeping contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature.’