George W. Williams.

History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens online

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Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 27 of 57)
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pulse, and her pronounced views against slavery.

"There has been in town a conspiracy of the negroes. At
present it is kept pretty private, and was discovered by one
who endeavored to dissuade them from it. He being threatened
with his life, applied to Justice Quincy for protection.
They conducted in this way, got an Irishman to draw up a
petition to the Governor [Gage], telling him they would
fight for him provided he would arm them, and engage to
liberate them if he conquered. And it is said that he
attended so much to it, as to consult Percy upon it, and one
Lieutenant Small has been very busy and active. There is but
little said, and what steps they will take in consequence of
it I know not. I wish most sincerely there was not a slave
in the province; it always appeared a most iniquitous scheme
to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and
plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as
we have. You know my mind upon this subject."[391]

The Negroes of Massachusetts were not mere passive observers of the
benevolent conduct of their white friends. They were actively
interested in the agitation going on in their behalf. Here, as in no
other colony, the Negroes showed themselves equal to the emergencies
that arose, and capable of appreciating the opportunities to strike
for their own rights. The Negroes in the colony at length struck a
blow for their liberty. And it was not the wild, indiscriminate blow
of Turner, nor the military measure of Gabriel; not the remorseless
logic of bludgeon and torch, - but the sober, sensible efforts of _men_
and _women_ who believed their condition abnormal, and slavery
prejudicial to the largest growth of the human intellect. The
eloquence of Otis, the impassioned appeals of Sewall, and the zeal of
Eliot had rallied the languishing energies of the Negroes, and charged
their hearts with the divine passion for liberty. They had learned to
spell out the letters of freedom, and the meaning of the word had
quite ravished their fainting souls. They had heard that the royal
charter declared all the colonists British subjects; they had devoured
the arguments of their white friends, and were now prepared to act on
their own behalf. The slaves of Greece and Rome, it is true,
petitioned the authorities for a relaxation of the severe laws that
crushed their manhood; but they were captives from other nations,
noted for government and a knowledge of the science of warfare. But it
was left to the Negroes of Massachusetts to force their way into
counts created only for white men, and win their cause!

On Wednesday, Nov. 5, 1766, John Adams makes the following record in
his diary: -

"5. Wednesday. Attended Court; heard the trial of an action
of trespass, brought by a mulatto woman, for damages, for
restraining her of her liberty. This is called suing for
liberty; the first action that ever I knew of the sort,
though I have heard there have been many."[392]

So as early as 1766 Mr. Adams records a case of "suing for liberty;"
and though it was the first he had known of, nevertheless, he had
"heard there have been many." _How_ many of these cases were in
Massachusetts it cannot be said with certainty, but there were "many."
The case to which Mr. Adams makes reference was no doubt that of Jenny
Slew _vs._ John Whipple, jun., cited by Dr. Moore. It being the
earliest case mentioned anywhere in the records of the colony, great
interest attaches to it.

"JENNY SLEW of Ipswich in the County of Essex, spinster,
Pltff., agst. JOHN WHIPPLE, Jun., of said Ipswich Gentleman,
Deft., in a Plea of Trespass that the said John on the 29th
day of January, A.D. 1762, at Ipswich aforesaid with force
and arms took her the said Jenny, held and kept her in
servitude as a slave in his service, and has restrained her
of her liberty from that time to the fifth of March last
without any lawful right & authority so to do and did her
other injuries against the peace & to the damage of said
Jenny Slew as she saith the sum of twenty-five pounds. This
action was first brought at last March Court at Ipswich when
& where the parties appeared & the case was continued by
order of Court to the then next term when and where the
Pltff appeared & the said John Whipple Jun, came by Edmund
Trowbridge, Esq. his attorney & defended when he said that
there is no such person in nature as Jenny Slew of Ipswich
aforesaid, Spinster, & this the said John was ready to
verify wherefore the writ should be abated & he prayed
judgment accordingly which plea was overruled by the Court
and afterwards the said John by the said Edmund made a
motion to the Court & praying that another person might
endorse the writ & be subject to cost if any should finally
be for the Court but the Court rejected the motion and then
Deft. saving his plea in abatement aforesaid said that he is
not guilty as the plaintiff contends, & thereof put himself
on the Country, & then the cause was continued to this term,
and now the Pltff. reserving to herself the liberty of
joining issue on the Deft's plea aforesaid in the appeal
says that the defendant's plea aforesaid is an insufficient
answer to the Plaintiff's declaration aforesaid and by law
she is not held to reply thereto & she is ready to verify
wherefore for want of a sufficient answer to the Plaintiff's
declaration aforesaid she prays judgment for her damages &
costs & the defendant consenting to the waiving of the
demurrer on the appeal said his plea aforesaid is good &
because the Pltff refuses to reply thereto He prays judgment
for his cost. It is considered by the Court that the
defendant's plea in chief aforesaid is good & that the said
John Whipple recover of the said Jenny Slew costs tax at the
Pltff appealed to the next Superior Court of Judicature to
be holden for this County & entered into recognizance with
sureties as the law directs for prosecuting her appeal to
effect." _Records of the Inferior Court of C.C.P., Vol_. - ,
(_Sept._ 1760 _to July_ 1766), _page_ 502.

"JENNY SLEW of Ipswich, in the County of Essex, Spinster,
Appellant, versus JOHN WHIPPLE, Jr. of said Ipswich,
Gentleman Appellee from the judgment of an Inferior Court of
Common Pleas held at Newburyport within and for the County
of Essex on the last Tuesday of September 1765 when and
where the appellant was plaint., and the appellee was
defendant in a plea of trespass, for that the said John upon
the 29th day of January, A.D. 1762, at Ipswich aforesaid
with force and arms took her the said Jenny held & kept her
in servitude as a slave in his service & has restrained her
of her liberty from that time to the fifth of March 1765
without any lawful right or authority so to do & did other
injuries against the Peace & to the damage of the said Jenny
Slew, as she saith, the sum of twenty-five pounds, at which
Inferior Court, judgment was rendered upon the demurrer then
that the said John Whipple recover against the said Jenny
Slew costs. This appeal was brought forward at the Superior
Court of Judicature &c., holden at Salem, within & for the
County of Essex on the first Tuesday of last November, from
whence it was continued to the last term of this Court for
this County by consent & so from thence unto this Court, and
now both parties appeared & the demurrer aforesaid being
waived by consent & issue joined upon the plea tendered at
said Inferior Court & on file. The case after full hearing
was committed to a jury sworn according to law to try the
same who returned their verdict therein upon oath, that is
to say, they find for appellant reversion of the former
judgment four pounds money damage & costs. It's therefore
considered by the Court, that the former judgment be
reversed & that the said Slew recover against the said
Whipple the sum of four pounds lawful money of this Province
damage & costs taxed 9_l._ 9_s._ 6_d._

"Exon. issued 4 Dec. 1766." _Records of the Superior Court
of Judicature_ (_vol._ 1766-7), _page_ 175.

The next of the "freedom cases," in chronological order, was the case
of Newport _vs._ Billing, and was doubtless the one in which John
Adams was engaged in the latter part of September, 1768.[393] It was
begun in the Inferior Court, where the decision was against the slave,
Amos Newport. The plaintiff took an appeal to the highest court in the
colony; and that court gave as its solemn opinion, "that the said Amos
[Newport] was not a freeman, as he alleged, but the proper slave of
the said Joseph [Billing]."[394] It should not be lost sight of, that
not only the Fundamental laws of 1641, but the highest court in
Massachusetts, held, as late as 1768, that there was property in man!

The case of James _vs._ Lechmere is the one "which has been for more
than half a century the grand _cheval de bataille_ of the champions of
the historic fame of Massachusetts."[395] Richard Lechmere resided in
Cambridge, and held to servitude for life a Negro named "James." On
the 2d of May, 1769, this slave began an action in the Inferior Court
of Common Pleas. The action was "in trespass for assault and battery,
and imprisoning and holding the plaintiff in servitude from April 11,
1758, to the date of the writ." The judgment of the Inferior Court was
adverse to the slave; but on the 31st of October, 1769, the Superior
Court of Suffolk had the case settled by compromise. A long line of
worthies in Massachusetts have pointed with pride to this decision as
the legal destruction of slavery in that State. But it "_is shown by
the records and files of Court to have been brought up from the
Inferior Court by sham demurrer, and, after one or two continuances,
settled by the parties_."[396] The truth of history demands that the
facts be given to the world. It will not be pleasant for the people of
Massachusetts to have this delusion torn from their affectionate
embrace. It was but a mere historical chimera, that ought not to have
survived a single day; and, strangely enough, it has existed until the
present time among many intelligent people. This case has been cited
for the last hundred years as having settled the question of bond
servitude in Massachusetts, when the fact is, there was no decision in
this instance! And the claim that Richard Lechmere's slave James was
adjudged free "upon the same grounds, substantially, as those upon
which Lord Mansfield discharged Sommersett," is absurd and
baseless.[397] For on the 27th of April, 1785 (thirteen years after
the famous decision), Lord Mansfield himself said, in reference to the
Sommersett case, "that his decision went no farther than that the
master cannot by force compel the slave to go out of the kingdom."
Thirty-five years of suffering and degradation remained for the
Africans after the decision of Lord Mansfield. His lordship's decision
was rendered on the 22d of June, 1772; and in 1807, thirty-five years
afterwards, the British government abolished the slave-trade. And
then, after twenty-seven years more of reflection, slavery was
abolished in English possessions. _So, sixty-two years after Lord
Mansfield's decision, England emancipated her slaves!_ It took only
two generations for the people to get rid of slavery under the British
flag. How true, then, that "facts are stranger than fiction"!

In 1770 John Swain of Nantucket brought suit against Elisha Folger,
captain of the vessel "Friendship," for allowing a Mr. Roth to receive
on board his ship a Negro boy named "Boston," and for the recovery of
the slave. This was a jury-trial in the Court of Common Pleas. The
jury brought in a verdict in favor of the slave, and he was
"manumitted by the magistrates." John Swain took an appeal from the
decision of the Nantucket Court to the Supreme Court of Boston, but
never prosecuted it.[398] In 1770, in Hanover, Plymouth County, a
Negro asked his master to grant him his freedom as _his right_. The
master refused; and the Negro, with assistance of counsel, succeeded
in obtaining his liberty.[399]

"In October of 1773, an action was brought against Richard
Greenleaf, of Newburyport, by C├Žsar [Hendrick,] a colored
man, whom he claimed as his slave, for holding him in
bondage. He laid the damages at fifty pounds. The counsel
for the plaintiff, in whose favor the jury brought in their
verdict and awarded him eighteen pounds damages and costs,
was John Lowell, esquire, afterward judge Lowell. This case
excited much interest, as it was the first, if not the only
one of the kind, that ever occurred in the county."[400]

This case is mentioned in full by Mr. Dane in his "Abridgment and
Digest of American Law," vol. ii. p. 426.

In the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, in the county of Essex, July
term in 1774, a Negro slave of one Caleb Dodge of Beverly brought an
action against his master for restraining his liberty. The jury gave a
verdict in favor of the Negro, on the ground that there was "no law of
the Province to hold a man to serve for life."[401] This is the only
decision we have been able to find based upon such a reason. The jury
may have reached this conclusion from a knowledge of the provisions of
the charter of the colony; or they may have found a verdict in
accordance with the charge of the court. The following significant
language in the charter of the colony could not have escaped the
court: -

"That all and every of the subjects of us, our heirs and
successors, which go to and inhabit within our said province
and territory, and every of their children which shall
happen to be born there, or on the seas in going thither, or
returning from thence, shall have and enjoy all liberties
and immunities of free and natural subjects within the
dominions of us, our heirs and successors, to all intents,
constructions, and purposes whatsoever, as if they and every
of them were born within our realm of England."

The Rev. Dr. Belknap, speaking of these cases which John Adams speaks
of as "suing for liberty," gives an idea of the line of argument used
by the Negroes: -

"On the part of the blacks it was pleaded, that the royal
charter expressly declared all persons born or residing in
the province, to be as free as the King's subjects in Great
Britain; that by the laws of England, no man could be
deprived of his liberty but by the judgment of his peers;
that the laws of the province respecting an evil existing,
and attempting to mitigate or regulate it, did not authorize
it; and, on some occasions, the plea was, that though the
slavery of the parents be admitted, yet no disability of
that kind could descend to children."[402]

The argument pursued by the masters was, -

"The pleas on the part of the masters were, that the negroes
were purchased in open market, and bills of sale were
produced in evidence; that the laws of the province
recognized slavery as existing in it, by declaring that no
person should manumit his slave without giving bond for his

It is well that posterity should know the motives that inspired judges
and juries to grant these Negroes their prayer for liberty.

"In 1773, etc., some slaves did recover against their
masters; but these cases are no evidence that there could
not be slaves in the Province, for sometimes masters
permitted their slaves to recover, to get clear of
maintaining them as _paupers_ when old and infirm; the
effect, as then generally understood, of a judgment against
the master on this point of slavery; hence, a very feeble
defence was often made by the masters, especially when sued
by the old or infirm slaves, as the masters could not even
manumit their slaves, without indemnifying their towns
against their maintenance, as town paupers."

And Chief-Justice Parsons, in the case of Winchendon _vs._ Hatfield,
in error, says, -

"Several negroes, born in this country of imported slaves
demanded their freedom of their masters by suit at law, and
obtained it by a judgment of court. The defence of the
master was feebly made, for such was the temper of the
times, that a restless discontented slave was worth little;
and when his freedom was obtained in a course of legal
proceedings, the master was not holden for his future
support, if he became poor."

Thus did the slaves of Massachusetts fill their mouths with arguments,
and go before the courts. The majority of them, aged and infirm, were
allowed to gain their cause in order that their masters might be
relieved from supporting their old age. The more intelligent, and,
consequently, the more determined ones, were allowed to have their
freedom from prudential reasons, more keenly felt than frankly
expressed by their masters. In some instances, however, noble,
high-minded Christians, on the bench and on juries, were led to their
conclusions by broad ideas of justice and humanity. But the spirit of
the age was cold and materialistic. With but a very few exceptions,
the most selfish and constrained motives conspired to loose the chains
of the bondmen in the colony.

The slaves were not slow to see that the colonists were in a frame of
mind to be persuaded on the question of emancipation. Their feelings
were at white heat in anticipation of the Revolutionary struggle, and
the slaves thought it time to strike out a few sparks of sympathy.

On the 25th of June, 1773, a petition was presented to the House of
Representatives, and read before that body during the afternoon
session. It was the petition "of Felix Holbrook, and others, Negroes,
praying that they may be liberated from a state of Bondage, and made
Freemen of this Community, and that this Court would give and grant to
them some part of the unimproved Lands belonging to the Province, for
a settlement, or relieve them in such other Way as shall seem good and
wise upon the Whole." After its reading, a motion prevailed to refer
it to a select committee for consideration, with leave to report at
any time. It was therefore "ordered, that Mr. Hancock, Mr. Greenleaf,
Mr. Adams, Capt. Dix, Mr. Pain, Capt. Heath, and Mr. Pickering
consider this Petition, and report what may be proper to be
done."[404] It was a remarkably strong committee. There were the
patriotic Hancock, the scholarly Greenleaf, the philosophic Pickering,
and the eloquent Samuel Adams. It was natural that the Negro
petitioners should have expected something. Three days after the
committee was appointed, on the 28th of June, they recommended "that
the further Consideration of the Petition be referred till next
session." The report was adopted, and the petition laid over until the
"_next session_."[405]

But the slaves did not lose heart. They found encouragement among a
few noble spirits, and so were ready to urge the Legislature to a
consideration of their petition at the next session, in the winter of
1774. The following letter shows that they were anxious and earnest.


"BOSTON, Jan'y. 8, 1774.

"_Sir_, -

As the General Assembly will undoubtedly meet on the 26th of
this month, the Negroes whose petition lies on file, and is
referred for consideration, are very solicitous for the
Event of it, and having been informed that you intended to
consider it at your leisure Hours in the Recess of the
Court, they earnestly wish you would compleat a Plan for
their Relief. And in the meantime, if it be not too much
Trouble, they ask it as a favor that you would by a Letter
enable me to communicate to them the general outlines of
your Design. I am, with sincere regard," etc.[406]

It is rather remarkable, that on the afternoon of the first day of the
session, - Jan. 26, 1774, - the "Petition of a number of Negro Men,
which was entered on the Journal of the 25th of June last, and
referred for Consideration to this session," was "read again, together
with a Memorial of the same Petitioners, and _Ordered_, that Mr.
Speaker, Mr. Pickering, Mr. Hancock, Mr. Adams, Mr. Phillips, Mr.
Pain, and Mr. Greenleaf consider the same, and report."[407] The
public feeling on the matter was aroused. It was considered as
important as, if not more important than, any measure before the

The committee were out until March, considering what was best to do
about the petition. On the 2d of March, 1774, they reported to the
House "a Bill to prevent the Importation of Negroes and others as
slaves into this Province," when it was read a first time. On the 3d
of March it was read a second time in the morning session; in the
afternoon session, read a third time, and passed to be engrossed. It
was then sent up to the Council to be concurred in, by Col. Gerrish,
Col. Thayer, Col. Bowers, Mr. Pickering and Col. Bacon.[408] On the
next day the bill "passed in Council with Amendments,"[409] and was
returned to the House. On the 5th of March the House agreed to concur
in Council amendments, and on the 7th of March passed the bill as
amended. On the day following it was placed upon its passage in the
Council, and carried. It was then sent down to the governor to receive
his signature, in order to become the law of the Province. That
official's approval was withheld, and the reason given was, "the
secretary said (on returning the approved bills) that his Excellency
had not had time to consider the other Bills that had been laid before

It is quite fortunate that the bill was preserved;[411] for it is now,
in the certain light of a better civilization, a document of great
historic value.


"AN ACT to prevent the importation of Negroes or
other Persons as Slaves into this Province, and the
purchasing them within the same, _and for making provision
for relief of the children of such as are already subjected
to slavery Negroes Mulattoes & Indians born within this

"WHEREAS the Importation of Persons as Slaves into
this Province has been found detrimental to the interest of
his Majesty's subjects therein; And it being apprehended
that the abolition thereof will be beneficial to the
Province -

"_Be it therefore Enacted_ by the Governor Council and House
of Representatives that whoever shall after the Tenth Day of
April next import or bring into this Province by Land or
Water any Negro or other Person or Persons whether Male or
Female as a Slave or Slaves shall for each and every such
Person so imported or brought into this Province forfeit and
pay the sum of one hundred Pounds to be recovered by
presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury and when so
recovered to be to his Majesty for the use of this
Government or by action of debt in any of his Majesty's
Courts of Record and in case of such recovery the one moiety
thereof to be to his majesty for the use of this Government
the other moiety to the Person or Persons who shall sue for
the same.

"_And be it further Enacted_ that from and after the Tenth
Day of April next any Person or Persons that shall purchase
any Negro or other Person or Persons as a Slave or Slaves
imported or brought into this Province as aforesaid shall
forfeit and pay for every Negro or other Person so purchased
Fifty Pounds to be recovered and disposed of in the same way
and manner as before directed.

"_And be it further Enacted_ that every Person, concerned in
importing or bringing into this Province, or purchasing any
such Negro or other Person or Persons as aforesaid within
the same; who shall be unable, or refuse, to pay the
Penalties or forfeitures ordered by this Act; shall for
every such offence suffer Twelve months' imprisonment
without Bail or mainprise.

"_Provided_ allways that nothing in this act contained shall
extend to subject to the Penalties aforesaid the Masters,

Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 27 of 57)