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Slavery discountenanced in Massachusetts-Supreme Judicial Court decide against it-John Lowell an advocate for its abolition-General Court request an adjustment of accounts and claims on the United States-and object to the appointment, by congress of any of its members to lucrative offices-Requisitions of Congress-Military peace establishment-Terms of treaty and peace with England-Massachusetts objects to some of the conditions-Time of complaint for high taxes-Governor Hancock resigns-James Bowdoin chosen governor-His political opponents-Parties forming-Public discontents-Great debt, and no system to discharge it-Speech of Governor Bowdoin, on the occasion-Proposes to pay off the debt, and to enlarge the powers of Congress to regulate foreign trade -Immense public debt-Difficult to provide for it-People complain, and resort to force-Punishment for crime.
IN 1783 the involuntary slavery of the people of color in Massachusetts was in effect condemned and prohibited, by a decision of the highest judicial tribunal in the state. An action was commenced in 1781, before a lower court, in the county of Worcester, against the master and owner of a slave for an assault and battery made by the master. The defence set up was that the person on whom the assault was alleged to be made, being a slave, the owner might beat him at his pleasure; and was not therefore amenable to the law for an assault. The case appears to have been decided on great constitutional principles, recognised in the declaration of the bill of rights, "that all men are born free and equal."* The master was convicted of an assault and fined. Those who continued in service afterwards, in the state, remained so rather voluntarily than by compulsion. Public opinion was altogether against domestic slavery. It was believed to be incompatible with the principles of civil liberty, for which the people had been contending, and contrary to the spirit of christianity. Instances
*The decision of the court was, "that the man assaulted or beaten was not a slave;" and was founded on the opinion that slavery was not authorized by law or statute, and though it had been permitted to keep negroes in such a condition, the principle could not be legally recognised and sanctioned, and that the plea of the master in defence of the beating could not be justified.
were to be found, however, after that period, of the continuance of slavery, though it was probably voluntary; as some aged persons, of this description, chose rather to remain in the families where they had long lived, than to be cast destitute on society. Before the revolution, domestic slavery was not uncommon in the large towns in Massachusetts; and as late as the year 1774, the public papers usually contained notices of black slaves for sale. The slave-trade had indeed, been long discountenanced and forbidden, even from a very early period, (1645,) though both Governor's Bernard, in 1765, and Governor Hutchinson, in 1773, were instructed, to give a negative to bills to suppress it, passed by the house of assembly of Massachusetts. The judicial courts were opposed to it. In 1770, when an African was brought into the province by a British vessel, as a slave, he was urged to sue for his freedom; and the court ordered him to be set at liberty. The case was decided, by reference, (as a precedent,) to the principles then recognised in England, that whenever a slave put foot on its territory he became free.*
As the efforts and expenses, on the part of Massachusetts, for support of the war of the revolution, were supposed to be greater than its just share, the general court instructed their delegates, in 1784, to request a settlement of the accounts of the state and when an adjustment was afterwards made, this was found to be the fact. The general court proposed also, at this period, that congress should have power to regulate foreign commerce for the United States; but it was not approved by all the other states. Some of the states had also omitted to provide impost duties for a public revenue; and this operated to an evasion of the laws for that purpose in the others. The same year the general court passed a resolution, in which they gave an opinion, that it was improper in congress to appoint any of its own members to lucrative offices.
In April, 1784, congress called for $5,500,000, for the expenses of that year, including claims against the continent, which ought then to be satisfied: but stated, at the same time, that the $12,000,000 before required for the term of three years, would be sufficient to meet present demands, if promptly collected. The portion of the last sum, required of Massachusetts, was $1,800,000; and the state was still in arrears for this amount, in the sum of $730,000; and if this could be paid, no additional tax was called for, to meet the requisitions
* John Lowell, a celebrated lawyer, took an active part in favor of the colored people held in bondage, and offered them his professional aid, with out fees.
of congress; still, the amount due on former taxes, and an appropriation for payment of a part of the wages due the soldiers, according to a promise of the preceding year, and the bonds for impost duties, made a large sum, which it was extren ely difficult to raise. Added to all which, congress called for $636,000 in a way confidential, to satisfy immediate demands; and Massachusetts was assessed $95,000 of that amount. There appeared to be an unwillingness to have the full demands on the country publicly known. It was afterwards found, that the sum was wanted to pay the interest and an instalment on a debt due in Europe, borrowed by Dr. Franklin for the use of the United States.
While congress was consulting on the subject of a permanent military establishment, the delegates from Massachusetts were instructed by the general court to oppose the maintenance of a large force. The expense was one objection with them; but they were opposed from principle to having a standing army in time of peace. The number of regiments proposed to be retained was six; four of infantry, one of artillery, and one of engineers. The principal argument in favor of retaining so large a force was, that the British had not given up the posts on the west and northwest frontiers, as the treaty provided; and that some tribes of Indians manifested a hostile disposition.
The treaty of peace provided, that there should be no further confiscation of the estates of refugees; that creditors should recover all bona fide debts; and that congress should recommend to the several states to restore the property of British subjects living in the provinces, still under the government of England, and who had not borne arms against the United States. The general court in Massachusetts did not readily comply with all these articles. In 1784, a law was passed, in which, assuming to be a sovereign state, and asserting authority to forbid the residence of aliens, and to decide for itself what would be a proper treatment of such persons, it was enacted, "that those who fled to the British in the revolution, were to be considered and treated as aliens, and not entitled, therefore, to claim and receive any property which they left in the state; that no estate already confiscated should be restored; that the credits, as well as real estates of the absentees, belonged to the commonwealth; and that they could not be allowed to return to it." It was also ordered that actions, brought in the judicial courts, by British subjects, be suspended, as the legislature doubted whether interest ought to be allowed during the period of the war. But the resolution was deemed improper, especially as it was for the judicial court, and not for the legislature, to
decide the question. Congress afterwards declared, that the treaty was binding on the several state legislatures, and enjoined a repeal of any acts repugnant to its terms. Massachusetts complied with this judgment of congress, at its next session. No further confiscations of the estates of refugees took place; some, then recently made, were restored; and the supreme executive of the state was authorized to permit the return of such persons as had not aided the British in the war.
In the winter of 1785, Mr. Hancock resigned the office of chief magistrate, on account of his feeble health; and Lieutenant Governor Cushing occupied the chair the residue of the political year. There were, however, some complaints against the governor from the people, that efficient measures had not been more promptly adopted to collect the public taxes. The arrears were of great amount, and had been standing against some towns for several years. The inability of the people was the constant excuse; and it was such as to call for all the clemency and forbearance which could be prudently exercised; but it was eventually of no relief; and the delay of collecting the taxes gave the successor of Governor Hancock more than ordinary difficulty.*
James Bowdoin was chosen governor for the political year commencing May, 1785. This election was by the members of the general court, as there was no choice by the votes of the people. There was a vague and unjust charge against Mr. Bowdoin, of attachment to the British government,† which was made by those ignorant of his real character, and who seem to have forgotten his able services in the most critical periods of the country. Mr. Bowdoin was among the earliest and most decided opposers of the oppressive and arbitrary measures of the British ministry; he was one of the ablest opponents of Governor Hutchinson, and often received his particular disapprobation, and his refusal to a seat in the council. He was one of the five delegates first chosen to the continental congress, in 1774-and was the first president of the executive council,
*Mr. Hancock was a sincere patriot, and gave the strongest proofs of his attachmet to the liberties of the country, in the sacrifices he made of his property. Yet he was sometimes charged with a desire of popularity, and a want of firmness, which are certainly defects in the character of a public man, in periods of peculiar trials. Mr. Hancock was chosen one of the representatives for Boston in 1785; and was again appointed a delegate to congress, when he was elected president, for the short time he remained. The other delegates to congress, in 1785, were Messrs. Gerry, Partridge, Holten, and King.
So early was this charge made, for party purposes, or in ignorance, against some of the purest patriots in the state or nation.
when the government of Massachusetts was organized in 1775, soon after the war began.
When Mr. Bowdoin was placed in the chair, the state and country were in a critical situation. The difficulties of a public nature were almost as great as at any period of the war. A spirit of discontent prevailed to such a degree, as to make the most patriotic rulers extremely anxious; and Governor Bowdoin felt all the responsibilities of his station. The demands on the state amounted to $10,000,000, including its portion of the continental debt: and no system of credit had been adopted, to give satisfaction to the numerous creditors. The greater part, indeed, were clamorous for immediate payment. There were objections to the allowance of five years' pay to the officers of the late army, which added largely to the public debt. Some were dissatisfied with the excise as unjust, and some with the impost, as disproportionate. The commercial relations of the country had been neglected; or, if not wholly neglected, the different regulations of different states operated injuriously. The British availed themselves, in a great measure, of the carrying trade of the country. And the return of refugees, under the treaty of 1783, was matter of bitter complaint, in many places. The taxes had then been very heavy for several successive years, and the resources of the state seem to have been entirely exhausted. The majority of the people were disposed to make all possible efforts to restore and support the credit of the state: but time only could effect it. There were a few, however, in the community, who exaggerated the difficulties of the times, and imputed inability or neglect to the legislature. The public address of the governor to the general court, at this time, proves at once the burdens of the people, and his desire to provide relief.
"To maintain the credit of the state," he said, "was the first object; and this must be by a punctual payment of interest, and a gradual diminution of the principal of the public debt. Great efforts would be necessary for several years to effect it. Industry and economy would be required as aids. It must be with the state as with an individual. There should be retrenchment in expenses, and old debts be paid as speedily as possible." He appealed to the patriotism of the people to remove and overcome the difficulties which surrounded them, He then referred to the state of the commerce and trade of the country, which required particular attention, to counteract the designs of Great Britain; which, he said, had only in view the profits of her own merchants. There must be laws to regulate trade in the United States, so as to render mercantile pursuits