Tue 6 Oct, 2009
Tags: Byron Rushing, Historical amnesia, Legislation, Massachusetts, Slave trade, Slavery
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It’s true that in an unpublished legal case in 1783, Commonwealth v. Jennison, the jury instructions suggested that slavery was incompatible with the state’s 1780 constitution.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.