- The Conflict with Slavery (A Chapter of History.) by John Greenleaf Whittier
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The Conflict with Slavery
A Chapter of History.

by John Greenleaf Whittier


The theory which a grave and learned Northern senator has recently announced in Congress, that slavery, like the cotton-plant, is confined by natural laws to certain parallels of latitude, beyond which it can by no possibility exist, however it may have satisfied its author and its auditors, has unfortunately no verification in the facts of the case. Slavery is singularly cosmopolitan in its habits. The offspring of pride, and lust, and avarice, it is indigenous to the world. Rooted in the human heart, it defies the rigors of winter in the steppes of Tartary and the fierce sun of the tropics. It has the universal acclimation of sin.

The first account we have of negro slaves in New England is from the pen of John Josselyn. Nineteen years after the landing at Plymouth, this interesting traveller was for some time the guest of Samuel Maverick, who then dwelt, like a feudal baron, in his fortalice on Noddle's Island, surrounded by retainers and servants, bidding defiance to his Indian neighbors behind his strong walls, with "four great guns" mounted thereon, and "giving entertainment to all new-comers gratis."

"On the 2d of October, 1639, about nine o'clock in the morning, Mr. Maverick's negro woman," says Josselyn, "came to my chamber, and in her own country language and tune sang very loud and shrill. Going out to her, she used a great deal of respect towards me, and would willingly have expressed her grief in English had she been able to speak the language; but I apprehended it by her countenance and deportment. Whereupon I repaired to my host to learn of him the cause, and resolved to entreat him in her behalf; for I had understood that she was a queen in her own country, and observed a very dutiful and humble garb used towards her by another negro, who was her maid. Mr. Maverick was desirous to have a breed of negroes; and therefore, seeing she would not yield by persuasions to company with a negro young man he had in his house, he commanded him, willed she, nilled she, to go to her bed, which was no sooner done than she thrust him out again. This she took in high disdain beyond her slavery; and this was the cause of her grief."

That the peculiar domestic arrangements and unfastidious economy of this slave-breeding settler were not countenanced by the Puritans of that early time we have sufficient evidence. It is but fair to suppose, from the silence of all other writers of the time with respect to negroes and slaves, that this case was a marked exception to the general habits and usage of the Colonists. At an early period a traffic was commenced between the New England Colonies and that of Barbadoes; and it is not improbable that slaves were brought to Boston from that island. The laws, however, discouraged their introduction and purchase, giving freedom to all held to service at the close of seven years.

In 1641, two years after Josselyn's adventure on Noddle's Island, the code of laws known by the name of the Body of Liberties was adopted by the Colony. It was drawn up by Nathaniel Ward, the learned and ingenious author of the 'Simple Cobbler of Agawarn', the earliest poetical satire of New England. One of its provisions was as follows:--

"There shall be never any bond slaverie, villainage, or captivitie amongst us, unless it be lawfull captives taken in just warres and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel doth morally require."

In 1646, Captain Smith, a Boston church-member, in connection with one Keeser, brought home two negroes whom he obtained by the surprise and burning of a negro village in Africa and the massacre of many of its inhabitants. Sir Richard Saltonstall, one of the assistants, presented a petition to the General Court, stating the outrage thereby committed as threefold in its nature, namely murder, man-stealing, and Sabbath- breaking; inasmuch as the offence of "chasing the negers, as aforesayde, upon the Sabbath day (being a servile work, and such as cannot be considered under any other head) is expressly capital by the law of God;" for which reason he prays that the offenders may be brought to justice, "soe that the sin they have committed may be upon their own heads and not upon ourselves."

Upon this petition the General Court passed the following order, eminently worthy of men professing to rule in the fear and according to the law of God,--a terror to evil-doers, and a praise to them that do well:--

"The General Court, conceiving themselves bound by the first opportunity to bear witness against the heinous and crying sin of man-stealing, as also to prescribe such timely redress for what has passed, and such a law for the future as may sufficiently deter all others belonging to us to have to do in such vile and odious courses, justly abhorred of all good and just men, do order that the negro interpreter, and others unlawfully taken, be by the first opportunity, at the charge of the country for the present, sent to his native country, Guinea, and a letter with him of the indignation of the Court thereabout, and justice thereof, desiring our honored Governor would please put this order in execution."

There is, so far as we know, no historical record of the actual return of these stolen men to their home. A letter is extant, however, addressed in behalf of the General Court to a Mr. Williams on the Piscataqua, by whom one of the negroes had been purchased, requesting him to send the man forthwith to Boston, that he may be sent home, "which this Court do resolve to send back without delay."

Three years after, in 1649, the following law was placed upon the statute-book of the Massachusetts Colony:--

"If any man stealeth a man, or mankind, he shall surely be put to death."

It will thus be seen that these early attempts to introduce slavery into New England were opposed by severe laws and by that strong popular sentiment in favor of human liberty which characterized the Christian radicals who laid the foundations of the Colonies. It was not the rigor of her Northern winter, nor the unkindly soil of Massachusetts, which discouraged the introduction of slavery in the first half-century of her existence as a colony. It was the Puritan's recognition of the brotherhood of man in sin, suffering, and redemption, his estimate of the awful responsibilities and eternal destinies of humanity, his hatred of wrong and tyranny, and his stern sense of justice, which led him to impose upon the African slave-trader the terrible penalty of the Mosaic code.

But that brave old generation passed away. The civil contentions in the mother country drove across the seas multitudes of restless adventurers and speculators. The Indian wars unsettled and demoralized the people. Habits of luxury and the greed of gain took the place of the severe self- denial and rigid virtues of the fathers. Hence we are not surprised to find that Josselyn, in his second visit to New England, some twenty-five years after his first, speaks of the great increase of servants and negroes. In 1680 Governor Bradstreet, in answer to the inquiries of his Majesty's Privy Council, states that two years before a vessel from Madagasca "brought into the Colony betwixt forty and fifty negroes, mostly women and children, who were sold at a loss to the owner of the vessel." "Now and then," he continues, "two or three negroes are brought from Barbadoes and other of his Majesty's plantations and sold for twenty pounds apiece; so that there may be within the government about one hundred or one hundred and twenty, and it may be as many Scots, brought hither and sold for servants in the time of the war with Scotland, and about half as many Irish."

The owning of a black or white slave, or servant, at this period was regarded as an evidence of dignity and respectability; and hence magistrates and clergymen winked at the violation of the law by the mercenary traders, and supplied themselves without scruple. Indian slaves were common, and are named in old wills, deeds, and inventories, with horses, cows, and household furniture. As early as the year 1649 we find William Hilton, of Newbury, sells to George Carr, "for one quarter part of a vessel, James, my Indian, with all the interest I have in him, to be his servant forever." Some were taken in the Narragansett war and other Indian wars; others were brought from South Carolina and the Spanish Main. It is an instructive fact, as illustrating the retributive dealings of Providence, that the direst affliction of the Massachusetts Colony--the witchcraft terror of 1692--originated with the Indian Tituba, a slave in the family of the minister of Danvers.

In the year 1690 the inhabitants of Newbury were greatly excited by the arrest of a Jerseyman who had been engaged in enticing Indians and negroes to leave their masters. He was charged before the court with saying that "the English should be cut off and the negroes set free." James, a negro slave, and Joseph, an Indian, were arrested with him. Their design was reported to be, to seize a vessel in the port and escape to Canada and join the French, and return and lay waste and plunder their masters. They were to come back with five hundred Indians and three hundred Canadians; and the place of crossing the Merrimac River, and of the first encampment on the other side, were even said to be fixed upon. When we consider that there could not have been more than a score of slaves in the settlement, the excitement into which the inhabitants were thrown by this absurd rumor of conspiracy seems not very unlike that of a convocation of small planters in a backwoods settlement in South Carolina on finding an anti-slavery newspaper in their weekly mail bag.

In 1709 Colonel Saltonstall, of Haverhill, had several negroes, and among them a high-spirited girl, who, for some alleged misdemeanor, was severely chastised. The slave resolved upon revenge for her injury, and soon found the means of obtaining it. The Colonel had on hand, for service in the Indian war then raging, a considerable store of gunpowder. This she placed under the room in which her master and mistress slept, laid a long train, and dropped a coal on it. She had barely time to escape to the farm-house before the explosion took place, shattering the stately mansion into fragments. Saltonstall and his wife were carried on their bed a considerable distance, happily escaping serious injury. Some soldiers stationed in the house were scattered in all directions; but no lives were lost. The Colonel, on recovering from the effects of his sudden overturn, hastened to the farm-house and found his servants all up save the author of the mischief, who was snug in bed and apparently in a quiet sleep.

In 1701 an attempt was made in the General Court of Massachusetts to prevent the increase of slaves. Judge Sewall soon after published a pamphlet against slavery, but it seems with little effect. Boston merchants and ship-owners became, to a considerable extent, involved in the slave-trade. Distilleries, established in that place and in Rhode Island, furnished rum for the African market. The slaves were usually taken to the West Indies, although occasionally part of a cargo found its way to New England, where the wholesome old laws against man-stealing had become a dead letter on the statute-book.

In 1767 a bill was brought before the Legislature of Massachusetts to prevent "the unwarrantable and unnatural custom of enslaving mankind." The Council of Governor Bernard sent it back to the House greatly changed and curtailed, and it was lost by the disagreement of the two branches. Governor Bernard threw his influence on the side of slavery. In 1774 a bill prohibiting the traffic in slaves passed both Houses; but Governor Hutchinson withheld his assent and dismissed the Legislature. The colored men sent a deputation of their own to the Governor to solicit his consent to the bill; but he told them his instructions forbade him. A similar committee waiting upon General Gage received the same answer.

In the year 1770 a servant of Richard Lechmere, of Cambridge, stimulated by the general discussion of the slavery question and by the advice of some of the zealous advocates of emancipation, brought an action against his master for detaining him in bondage. The suit was decided in his favor two years before the similar decision in the case of Somerset in England. The funds necessary for carrying on this suit were raised among the blacks themselves. Other suits followed in various parts of the Province; and the result was, in every instance, the freedom of the plaintiff. In 1773 Caesar Hendrick sued his master, one Greenleaf, of Newburyport, for damages, laid at fifty pounds, for holding him as a slave. The jury awarded him his freedom and eighteen pounds.

According to Dr. Belknap, whose answers to the queries on the subject, propounded by Judge Tucker, of Virginia, have furnished us with many of the facts above stated, the principal grounds upon which the counsel of the masters depended were, that the negroes were purchased in open market, and included in the bills of sale like other property; that slavery was sanctioned by usage; and, finally, that the laws of the Province recognized its existence by making masters liable for the maintenance of their slaves, or servants.

On the part of the blacks, the law and usage of the mother country, confirmed by the Great Charter, that no man can be deprived of his liberty but by the judgment of his peers, were effectually pleaded. The early laws of the Province prohibited slavery, and no subsequent legislation had sanctioned it; for, although the laws did recognize its existence, they did so only to mitigate and modify an admitted evil.

The present state constitution was established in 1780. The first article of the Bill of Rights prohibited slavery by affirming the foundation truth of our republic, that "all men are born free and equal." The Supreme Court decided in 1783 that no man could hold another as property without a direct violation of that article.

In 1788 three free black citizens of Boston were kidnapped and sold into slavery in one of the French islands. An intense excitement followed. Governor Hancock took efficient measures for reclaiming the unfortunate men. The clergy of Boston petitioned the Legislature for a total prohibition of the foreign slave-trade. The Society of Friends, and the blacks generally, presented similar petitions; and the same year an act was passed prohibiting the slave-trade and granting relief to persons kidnapped or decoyed out of the Commonwealth. The fear of a burden to the state from the influx of negroes from abroad led the Legislature, in connection with this law, to prevent those who were not citizens of the state or of other states from gaining a residence.

The first case of the arrest of a fugitive slave in Massachusetts under the law of 1793 took place in Boston soon after the passage of the law. It is the case to which President Quincy alludes in his late letter against the fugitive slave law. The populace at the trial aided the slave to escape, and nothing further was done about it.

The arrest of George Latimer as a slave, in Boston, and his illegal confinement in jail, in 1842, led to the passage of the law of 1843 for the "protection of personal liberty," prohibiting state officers from arresting or detaining persons claimed as slaves, and the use of the jails of the Commonwealth for their confinement. This law was strictly in accordance with the decision of the supreme judiciary, in the case of Prigg vs. The State of Pennsylvania, that the reclaiming of fugitives was a matter exclusively belonging to the general government; yet that the state officials might, if they saw fit, carry into effect the law of Congress on the subject, "unless prohibited by state legislation."

It will be seen by the facts we have adduced that slavery in Massachusetts never had a legal existence. The ermine of the judiciary of the Puritan state has never been sullied by the admission of its detestable claims. It crept into the Commonwealth like other evils and vices, but never succeeded in clothing itself with the sanction and authority of law. It stood only upon its own execrable foundation of robbery and wrong.

With a history like this to look back upon, is it strange that the people of Massachusetts at the present day are unwilling to see their time- honored defences of personal freedom, the good old safeguards of Saxon liberty, overridden and swept away after the summary fashion of "the Fugitive Slave Bill;" that they should loathe and scorn the task which that bill imposes upon them of aiding professional slave-hunters in seizing, fettering, and consigning to bondage men and women accused only of that which commends them to esteem and sympathy, love of liberty and hatred of slavery; that they cannot at once adjust themselves to "constitutional duties" which in South Carolina and Georgia are reserved for trained bloodhounds? Surely, in view of what Massachusetts has been, and her strong bias in favor of human freedom, derived from her great- hearted founders, it is to be hoped that the Executive and Cabinet at Washington will grant her some little respite, some space for turning, some opportunity for conquering her prejudices, before letting loose the dogs of war upon her. Let them give her time, and treat with forbearance her hesitation, qualms of conscience, and wounded pride. Her people, indeed, are awkward in the work of slave-catching, and, it would seem, rendered but indifferent service in a late hunt in Boston. Whether they would do better under the surveillance of the army and navy of the United States is a question which we leave with the President and his Secretary of State. General Putnam once undertook to drill a company of Quakers, and instruct them, by force of arms, in the art and mystery of fighting; but not a single pair of drab-colored breeches moved at his "forward march;" not a broad beaver wheeled at his word of command; no hand unclosed to receive a proffered musket. Patriotic appeal, hard swearing, and prick of bayonet had no effect upon these impracticable raw recruits; and the stout general gave them up in despair. We are inclined to believe that any attempt on the part of the Commander-in-chief of our army and navy to convert the good people of Massachusetts into expert slave-catchers, under the discipline of West Point and Norfolk, would prove as idle an experiment as that of General Putnam upon the Quakers.

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