J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Samuel Adams and Slavery: The Public Man

Back in November, biographer Ira Stoll published an opinion essay in the New York Daily News about Samuel Adams’s views on slavery, drawing a contrast between him and some of his Revolutionary colleagues on the issue. I think Ira might have overstated the case a little in proposing that “of all our founding fathers, he is the one perhaps most likely to have” dreamed of a black President.

Adams expressed a distaste for slavery and supported an end to the transatlantic slave trade (which was different from wanting to end slavery in the colonies or U.S. of A. themselves). But he was far from alone among American politicians in doing so. Even Continental Congress members whose entire lives depended on enslaved labor nevertheless tsk-tsked about the institution. Only a few ever took practical steps to limit it in their own states and estates.

Adams supported mild anti-slavery measures in Massachusetts. In May 1766, Boston’s town meeting—where he was an important organizer—instructed its representatives to the General Court to propose a law against buying and selling slaves in Massachusetts. This was, the town noted, a first step to ending slavery in the province altogether. The legislature (where Adams had just become Clerk of the lower house) instead enacted laws against importing slaves. That law wouldn’t have affected the slaves already in Massachusetts—except perhaps by making them more valuable. And the government in London vetoed the law anyway.

On 8 Jan 1774 Adams, still Clerk, wrote to John Pickering, representative from Salem:

As the General Assembly will undoubtedly meet on the 26th of this month, the Negroes whose petition lies on file, and is referred for consideration, are very solicitous for the Event of it, and having been informed that you intended to consider it at your leisure Hours in the Recess of the Court, they earnestly wish you would compleat a Plan for their Relief. And in the meantime, if it be not too much Trouble, they ask it as a favor that you would by a Letter enable me to communicate to them the general outlines of your Design.
Peter Bestes, Felix Holbrook, and two other black men had submitted a petition the previous fall, seeking their freedom. Adams and Pickering were on the committee that had recommended that it be held over. Eventually the House passed another bill—not to answer those men’s plea but again to prohibit the import of slaves. And to no one’s surprise, it too was vetoed.

Adams served for years in the Continental Congress, but never pushed on the slavery issue when it would harm the alliance of the states. During the debate over the U.S. Constitution, Abolitionists objected to the clause preserving the slave trade until at least 1808. Adams, once he came over to the Federalist side, argued that it was good that the document talked about ending the slave trade at all.

Overall, it seems clear that Adams opposed keeping African people and their descendants in bondage for life, but he never pushed that cause at the expense of others he thought were more important. When he wrote newspaper essays against “slavery,” he almost always meant the metaphorical slavery of white propertied men losing their political rights.

Might Samuel Adams have dreamed of a black President? I doubt the idea occurred to him, or to most other politicians of his time.

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