As I previewed last month, the Massachusetts state legislature held a hearing yesterday on state representative Byron Rushing’s proposed slavery-era disclosure law.

Update: Governor Deval Patrick has commented that while he hasn’t read the bill, he agrees that “we have some unfinished work about some injustices that goes back generations.”

H 3148 would make Massachusetts the fifth state to enact a law intended to pry open corporate records on their involvement in slavery and the slave trade. As I’ve indicated in the blog posts I’ve linked to above, I think these laws offer significant benefits in addressing our nation’s pervasive amnesia regarding the centrality of slavery to our history and its relevance to our present circumstances.

The extent of the nation’s historical amnesia over slavery, particularly in the northern states, is strikingly illustrated by yesterday’s Associated Press story in advance of the hearing.

The story, which ran in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, focuses on what the writer considers the paradox of studying the history of slavery in Massachusetts:

The focus on Massachusetts may seem misplaced at first. The state was the first to abolish slavery …. Massachusetts also was a center of abolitionist activity in the years leading up to the Civil War.

But while the state distanced itself from slavery early in the nation’s history, some Massachusetts residents and institutions continued to profit from the trade up to and even after the Civil War when the trade continued to flourish outside the country.

As is so common with historical discussions about slavery and the North, this characterization of Massachusetts is misleading in several respects.

(The lack of) emancipation in Massachusetts

It’s true that in an unpublished legal case in 1783, Commonwealth v. Jennison, the jury instructions suggested that slavery was incompatible with the state’s 1780 constitution. It’s also true that this non-binding observation lead other Massachusetts courts to refuse to recognize slavery, and this was recognized as a watershed in the long, slow decline of slavery and the very gradual imposition of emancipation in the North.

However, the Massachusetts legislature was strongly pro-slavery. The legislators had rejected emancipation in 1777, and the first draft of the state’s constitution specifically upheld slavery. The 1780 constitution, by contrast, was silent on the question of slavery, and after the courts interpreted that document as incompatible with slavery, the state legislature simply declined to clarify their intention.

The Massachusetts constitution was never amended to prohibit slavery, and the state never acted to abolish slavery by law. This was particularly telling because the state’s voting public did, in fact, lean against slavery. This opposition was driven by the state’s large and politically influential white working class, which resented the economic competition which slaves represented.

(The modest role of) abolitionism in Massachusetts

Why, then, did Massachusetts not act to formally abolish slavery within the state, to protect the rights of free blacks, and to agitate for the emancipation of southern slaves?

The first reason is that the Massachusetts public was not, on the whole, concerned with the welfare of free or enslaved blacks. As I’ve just mentioned, popular opposition to slavery within the state was driven by concern over economic competition with working-class whites. This sentiment, therefore, did not extend to the well-being of free blacks, who were often very poorly treated in law and practice, or to ending slavery in the southern states.

Now, in fact Massachusetts was an early center of abolitionist thought and organization, but this nascent movement was focused on a small number of progressive thinkers and was countered by strong pro-slavery sentiments. Abolitionist writings and rallies, for instance, were matched with anti-abolitionist writings and rallies. In 1835, a mob of 1,000 famously broke into a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, kidnapped the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and paraded him through the streets of Boston until he was jailed to prevent him from being tarred or lynched.

(The strong ties between) slavery and Massachusetts

The second reason for the state’s failure to abolish slavery is that the state’s economy was inextricably tied to slavery, and the economic interests of both elites and the working class in Massachusetts were squarely aligned with the maintenance of southern slavery.

Massachusetts was a leading slave-trading state until the federal ban in 1808. Not only did the state’s merchants conduct a great many of the nation’s slaving voyages to Africa, out of seaports like Salem and Boston, but they built a large proportion of the nation’s slaving ships, imported millions of gallons of molasses and distilled millions of gallons of rum. In short, many of the state’s leading families, with names like Winthrop and Faneuil, gained their wealth from plantation slavery, and many of the state’s citizens were employed in businesses directly related to slavery or the slave trade.

After the end of the slave trade in 1808, the state’s wealthy and working-class alike increasingly benefited from the expansion of the cotton textile industry, which took place in mill towns like Lowell and Lawrence. The textile industry depended on the profits from slavery and the slave trade and on cheap, slave-produced cotton. The state’s economic interests were also heavily involved in provisioning slave plantations in the West Indies and the American South, and in the financing and shipping of southern cotton.

These facts help to explain why it is true, but entirely misleading, to speak of the state simply as “a center of abolitionist activity,” and why it is so ironic to argue, as the A.P. story does, merely that “some Massachusetts residents and institutions” profited from slavery in the years before the Civil War.

5 Responses to “Hearing held on Massachusetts slavery-era disclosure law”

  1. Tizziec says:

    Just wondering here. If this is a matter of education, why do I not see anyewhere, the acts of the Education Departments of these states in mandating that their schools teach the deeper truth? What is the purpose of STATE legislation mandating disclosure? I am fully behind more in depth teaching of history on the whole, but the truth is, history is certainly NOT stressed as an important part of this country's educational process. You are lucky if kids know what year we won our freedom let alone anything about slavery outside of plantations and the civil war. I would suggest that the state spend more time mandating that history be taught at all, and let the education department take care of what is taught and how the information is gained. Mass. has some pretty high end colleges that I am sure would be happy to do the research and help develope a better state curriculum, but the way the states are goping about this is just plain WRONG! I will put money down right now and say that it will be years, if at ever, that the schools actually begin teaching history again, let alone specifics on it.

  2. James says:

    Tizziec, I agree that our states could do a much better job of educating our young people. This includes the teaching of history in general, and our history of slavery and race in particular.

    I would point out, though, that far more children learn the basics of this history in U.S. schools than used to be the case. For instance, when I speak with audiences in this country, most adults say that they are surprised to learn the extent of northern involvement in slavery and the slave trade. Many teenagers and college-age young people, on the other hand, say that they learned this in school. So I believe that our challenge today is as much to educate adults as schoolchildren.

    I can't agree with you that there is no purpose in state legislation mandating disclosure of corporate records on slavery.

    While it's true that university researchers can arrange to gain access to some corporate records, many companies have no interest in opening their archives to outside scholars wishing to explore their historic connections to slavery. If we wish to expand our knowledge of the details and extent of slavery and slavery-related businesses in our history, we do need to explore historical records held by governments, organizations, private individuals, and corporations alike.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well, its hard to argue "against education," but equally as hard to rank order the subjects? But yea, I agree the study of slavery ((both racial and wage earning)) would be central from a number of viewpoints.

    My own remembered grammar school history was that there was slavery all over the place. American Indians would sit and die rather than work, so African were brought in who would work as well as white indentured slaves who had no other way to pay for their passage. Pretty slim? Still left me with the "attitude" that capital/labor had some serious issues. And that remains true today.

    "All men are created equal"==I wonder how many and to what degree the founders understood that to be aspirational? Not being sarcastic at all, serious questions. They "knew" it wasn't true and wasn't going to be true for years, so what were they thinking?

    Nice review of the law/history.

  4. bobbo says:

    Hey!==I'm not anonymous, I'm bobbo re Post #3.

    Also should have said indentured "servants" for whatever difference there was===I think they couldn't be beaten to death and that was about it?

  5. Tizziec says:

    WOW, I guess I owe a big thank you to my history teachers from my past. As I recall, even as far back as grammar school, we learned a heck of a lot more than the kids today about history. My duaghter gets next to nothing, but has it jammed into her brain by her mother :). I wish history, even as little as there is in the system, was taught beyond the names and dates and into the cultural and social aspects as well as the connection to how we live today. I am hoping to be able to teach it that way myself (Hoping I can fight the system enough to make my classes really count). I still think the issue belongs in the world of academia and not the state legeslature.

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