Samuel Dexter to the reverend
Weston Feby 23d, 1795.
Your printed letter came to hand yesterday. Without regard to
order or arrangement, I will write all that occurs to my mind on the subject
of it, out of which you may, perhaps, cull something that you may be able
to apply to a few of the queries of your benevolent correspondent, to whom you
are desirous of affording assistance in his humane design respecting the
emancipation of slaves in the State of Virginia.
I believe neither Neal nor Hutchinson have mentioned an
can trade as carried on to any part of New England. I have turned to both indexes,
and whirled over leaves, to no purpose. If any such trade really existed, at
an early period, I may have read something about it; but can now recol-
lect nothing. 2 It certainly never was, at any time, carried on to a great ex-
tent in Massachusetts. Adventurers from hence have been concerned in
a trade from Africa to the West India Islands; but I know of none since
Thomas Boylston (now in London) quitted it. McCarthy, and, I believe, Job
Prince, were his captains, the former divers voyages. 2 Vessels from
Rhodeisland have brought slaves into Boston. Whether any have been
imported into that town by its own merchants I am unable to say. I
have, more than fifty years ago, seen a vessel or two, with slaves brought
into Boston; but do not recollect where they were owned. At that time
it was a very rare thing to hear the trade reprobated. 4 Some disliked the
custom of keeping negroes from prudential considerations; but the number
was small indeed who had religious scruples. Such scruples were confined
to the most liberal thinkers. People in general justified the trade on the
persuasion that, without some degree of acquaintance with the doctrines
table: and I doubt not, it may be said with truth that the owners of
slaves in Massachusetts were more careful to instruct them in what
were then thought its doctrines, and more attentive to their morals, than their owners were in any other
colony, unless, perhaps, Connecticut.
I know not how long Bishop Butler has been dead, but (it
be 45 years since) Wm Vassal, Esqr who had a great number of slaves on
his W. I. plantations, having scruples, wrote to the Bishop, as a casuist.
He justified the practice of keeping them on Scripture ground; and Vassal, very willing
to be convinced, acquiesced in the decision. It was said, he once
wrote to Thomas Chubb, the deist, on the same subject. What his
verdict was I never heard.
5 About the time of the Stamp Act, what before were only
scruples in the minds of conscientious persons became serious doubts, and,
with a considerable number, ripened into a firm persuasion, that the slave
trade was malum in se. Pieces against it appeared in newspapers,
and some pamphlets were written.
5 March 4, 1767, a bill, intitled "An Act to prevent the
tion of slaves into this Province," was read a first time in the House of Re-
presentatives. On a second reading, the next day, it was committed for altera-
tion. On the 13th it appeared again, and was read a first time, under the title
of "An Act for preventing the unnatural and unwarrantable custom of
enslaving mankind in this Province, and the importation of slaves into
the same." On a second reading (the 16th) a vote for a third reading did
not obtain; but a committee was appointed to bring in a bill for laying
a duty on slaves imported. Such a bill was brought in the next day, inti-
tled "An Act for laying an impost on the importation of negro and other
slaves into this Province," and read a first and second time, and on the 18th
House, and active for the bills under every form. The Council made
many amendments -- the House nonconcurred, and thus died the bill. Had
it passed both Houses Gov. Bernard would not have signed it. The duty
was laid high. This was only an attempt at "legislative discourage-
ment" of slavery. There never was so much as an attempt made at any other
time, before nor since, that I have heard of. This will, in a measure,
apply to the 3d query under the 3d general division of queries.
5 The gentleman inquires (5th division) respecting the mode
slavery was abolished. The query may be answered thus -- It never was formally
and expressly abolished -- There never was either "a general and simultaneous
emancipation," nor one "at different periods," nor were "persons born after
a particular period declared free."
To the first query under the 6th division, vizt "At what period was slavery
wholly abolished?" what follows is a complete answer. In the year 1780, by the
first article in the declaration of rights, when the constitution of Massachu-
setts was ratified. These are a part of the words of that article -- "All men
are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and un-
alienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying
and defending their lives and liberties" -- There are similar ar-
ticles in the declaration of rights of New Hampshire and Pensylvania.
5 Soon after the establishment of the constitution of
setts, one negro after another deserted from the service of those who had
been their owners, till a considerable number had revolted. Some of
them were siezed, and remanded to their former servitude. Certain
individuals of these brought actions against those who had been their
masters, and the success of the negroes in these suits operated to the
liberation of all, who did not voluntarily remain with their former owners.
know how to get provide for themselves, or for some pecuniary conside-
ration. Thus ended slavery in Massachusetts.
The answer to the 7th and 8th general division of queries is, that those
who were formerly slaves, are now, in all respects, in the same state
and condition with the whites.
I am unable to say any thing to the 9th general Head division.
To the 10th I say, "Intermarriages between the blacks and whites" are very
rare -- "oftener between black men and white women than the contrary."
To the 11th I answer, that in country towns "harmony in general
prevails between blacks and white citizens" -- Yet, though they associate together
the latter consider themselves as "pre-eminent," which is " tacitly admitted"
by the former.
I can say nothing with respect to the maritime towns, save
that in Boston there is a Lodge of free and accepted masons, the brethren
of which are all negroes. Whether they modestly decline mixing with
whites in the public processions of the fraternity -- or whether they occasionally
desire admittance as visiting brothers, at other Lodges, are questions I
cannot decide. They cannot be denyed without violating the spirit and design
of the institution. I speak as a brother; but I have not been present
at a Lodge for more than twenty five years.
With much regard I am, Sir, your most obedient
[Subscription (recipient's name at foot of page)] Rev'd Doctor Belknap.