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equally censured. Still, there cannot be any doubt that the prevailing sentiment of the people at the South, as well as at the North, was decidedly opposed to slavery. The evil was almost universally regarded as temporary, and no one openly advocated its perpetuation.
Before passing from the consideration of the Declaration of Independence, let us look, for a moment, at the practical interpretation of its language, as furnished by the early legislation of some of the States.
The declaration that all men are born equal, and that they possess the unalienable right of liberty, was re-affirmed by several of the States, and adopted as a part of their Constitutions. The action of our own Commonwealth, in this respect, was clearly shown by the Rev. Dr. Belknap, the founder of our Society, in his "Answers to Queries respecting Slavery," proposed to him by the Hon. Judge Tucker of Virginia, January 24th, 1795.
"The present Constitution of Massachusetts was established in 1780. The first article of the Declaration of Rights asserts that 'all men are born free and equal.' This was inserted not merely as a moral or political truth, but with a particular view to establish the liberation of the negroes on a general principle; and so it was understood by the people at large; but some doubted whether this were sufficient.
"Many of the blacks, taking advantage of the public opinion and of this general assertion in the Bill of Rights, asked their freedom, and obtained it. Others took it without leave. Some of the aged and infirm thought it most prudent to continue in the families where they had always been well used, and experience has proved that they acted right.
"In 1781, at the Court in Worcester County, an indictment was found against a white man for assaulting, beating, and imprisoning a black. He was tried at the Supreme Judicial Court in 1783. His defence was, that the black was his slave; and that the beating, &c. was the necessary restraint and correction of the master. This was answered by citing the aforesaid clause in the Declaration of Rights. The judges and jury were of opinion, that he had no right to beat or
imprison the negro. He was found guilty, and fined forty shillings. This decision was a mortal wound to slavery in Massachusetts." Mass. Hist. Coll., First Series, vol. iv. p. 203.
The Hon. Emory Washburn, in his admirable paper on the "Extinction of Slavery in Massachusetts," communicated to our Society at the regular meeting in May, 1857, and published in the Proceedings for that year, gives a pretty full account of this trial.
The brief used by Mr. Lincoln, the counsel for the negro, Brief was placed in the hands of Mr. Washburn by the son of the Lincoln. eminent counsellor, our venerable and respected associate, the Hon. Levi Lincoln of Worcester, for many years Governor of this Commonwealth. Every word of it, and of the whole paper of Mr. Washburn, ought to be carefully read and pondered at the present time. A few extracts will give some idea of the character of the arguments so effectively used at that period, when the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the founders of the Republic were still struggling to establish our Government on the firm basis of equal and eternal justice. A solemn appeal to the "higher law" was not, in those days, denounced as moral or political heresy.
"When a fellow-subject is restrained of his liberty, it is an attack upon every other subject; and every one has a right to aid him in regaining his liberty.
"What, in this respect, are to be the consequences of your verdict? Will it not be tidings of great joy to this community? It is virtually opening the prison-doors, and letting the oppressed go free!
"Could they expect to triumph in their struggle with Great Britain, and become free themselves, until they let those go free who were under them? Were they not acting like Pharaoh and the Egyptians, if they refused to set these free?
“But the plaintiff insists that it is not true, as stated in the Constitution, that all men are born free; for children are born and placed under the power and control of their parents.
"This may be. But they are not born as slaves: they are under
Brief of Mr.
the power of their parents, to be nursed and nurtured and educated for their good.
"And the black child is born as much a free child in this sense as if it were white.
“In making out that negroes are the property of their masters, the counsel for the plaintiff speak of lineage, and contend that the children of slaves must be slaves in the same way that, because our first parents fell, we all fell with them.
"But are not all mankind born in the same way? Are not their bodies clothed with the same kind of flesh? Was not the same breath of life breathed into all? We are under the same gospel dispensation, have one common Saviour, inhabit the same globe, die in the same manner; and though the white man may have his body wrapped in fine linen, and his attire may be a little more decorated, there all distinction of man's making ends. We all sleep on the same level in the dust. We shall all be raised by the sound of one common trump, calling unto all that are in their graves, without distinction, to arise; shall be arraigned at one common bar; shall have one common Judge, and be tried by one common jury, and condemned or acquitted by one common law, by the gospel, the perfect law of liberty.
“This cause will then be tried again, and your verdict will there be tried. Therefore, gentlemen of the jury, let me conjure you to give such a verdict now as will stand this test, and be approved by your own minds in the last moments of your existence, and by your Judge at the last day.
"It will then be tried by the laws of reason and revelation.
"Is it not a law of nature, that all men are equal and free?
"Is not the law of nature the law of God?
"Is not the law of God, then, against slavery?
"If there is no law of man establishing it, there is no difficulty. If there is, then the great difficulty is to determine which law you ought to obey; and, if you shall have the same ideas as I have of present and future things, you will obey the former.
"The worst that can happen to you for disobeying the former is the destruction of the body; for the last, that of your souls.” ·Proceedings of the Mass. Hist. Soc., 1855–58, pp. 198–201.
Other contemporary documents might be cited to show how such language as that used in the Declaration of Inde
pendence was interpreted by the legislative and legal action of the day. I will only give the first article in the Constitution of Vermont :
"All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain Constitunatural, inherent, and inalienable rights; among which are the enjoy- Vermont. ing and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety: therefore no male person, born in this country or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law to serve any person as a servant, slave, or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one years; nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years; unless they are bound by their own consent after they arrive to such age, or bound by the law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like."
The articles of Confederation which constituted the Law Articles of Confederaof the Land from the time of their passage in 1778 to the tion. adoption of the Federal Constitution-recognized and granted to free negroes the same privileges of citizenship which belonged to white inhabitants. The fourth article is as follows:
“ART. 4. — The better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different States in this Union, regarded as the free inhabitants of each of these States paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice excepted-shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several States; and the people of each State shall have free ingress and regress to and from any other State, and shall enjoy therein all the privileges of trade and commerce, subject to the same duties, impositions, and restrictions as the inhabitants thereof, respectively; provided that such restrictions shall not extend so far as to prevent the removal of property imported into any State from any other State, of which the owner is an inhabitant; provided, also, that no imposition, duty, or restriction, shall be laid by any State on the property of the United States, or either of them."-Elliot's Debates, vol. i. p. 79.
It was not by accident or oversight that negroes were included in the phrase "free inhabitants"; for, when this arti
New Jersey objects to the omis
sion of negroes.
cle was under consideration, the delegates from South Carolina moved to amend, by inserting between the words "free" and "inhabitants" the word "white." The proposed amendment was lost; only two States voting in the affirmative.
In the ninth article, the word "white" was retained. The State of New Jersey, although a slaveholding State, objected to this, and made a representation to Congress on the subject; an extract from which is pertinent here:
"The ninth article also provides that the requisition for the land forces, to be furnished by the several States, shall be proportioned to the number of white inhabitants in each. In the act of Independence, we find the following declaration: 'We hold these truths to be selfevident: that all men are created equal; that they are endued by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' Of this doctrine it is not a very remote consequence, that all the inhabitants of every society, be the color of their complexion what it may, are bound to promote the interest thereof, according to their respective abilities. They ought, therefore, to be brought into the account, on this occasion. But admitting necessity or expediency to justify the refusal of liberty, in certain circumstances, to persons of a particular color, we think it unequal to reckon upon such in this case. Should it be improper, for special local reasons, to admit them in arms for the defence of the nation, yet we conceive the proportion of forces to be embodied ought to be fixed according to the whole number of inhabitants in the State, from whatever class they may be raised. If the whole number of inhabitants in a State, whose inhabitants are all whites, both those who are called into the field and those who remain to till the ground and labor in mechanical arts and otherwise, are reckoned in the estimate for striking the proportion of forces to be furnished by that State, ought even a part of the latter description to be left out in another? As it is of indispensable necessity, in every war, that a part of the inhabitants be employed for the uses of husbandry and otherwise at home, while others are called into the field, there must be the same propriety that owners of a different color, who are employed for this purpose in one State, while whites are employed for the same purpose in another, be reckoned in the account of the inhabitants in the present instance.' Elliot's Debates, vol. i. p. 89.