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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Friday, May 26, 2006

Newton Prince: civil rights lobbyist

I plan to pay my first visit to the New-York Historical Society today, so it seems appropriate to post about a document there which reveals a bit about lobbying for civil rights in Boston just before the Revolution.

The NYHS owns a leaflet reprinting a letter datelined "Boston, April 20th, 1773," and signed by four men who identify themselves as slaves: Peter Bestes, Sambo Freeman, Felix Holbrook, and Chester Joie. They ask for their liberty, in the same spirit that the province was then demanding political liberties from the Crown. According to their letter, after becoming free those four men planned

to leave the province, which we determine to do as soon as we can, from our joynt labours procure money to transport ourselves to some part of the Coast of Africa, where we propose a settlement.
The printed leaflet was part of a legislative lobbying effort, as shown by the address line printed on it: "For the Representative of the town of". The town name "Thompson" was written in by hand on the NYHS copy. Presumably there was one leaflet prepared for every sympathetic lawmaker.

Who delivered these leaflets on behalf of the four slaves, who had neither the liberty nor the standing to speak for themselves? More than twenty years later, a former member of the Massachusetts legislature's upper house recalled being approached by a free black businessman with a pamphlet. Samuel Dexter, former Council member from Weston, wrote to the Rev Jeremy Belknap on 26 Feb 1795:
I took up a pamphlet which I had not looked into for several years, and found I had noted upon the outside leaf that it was given to me by Mr. Newton Prince, lemon merchant, in the name and at the desire of a number of negroes, then petitioners to the General Court. At the head of these was Foelix Holbrook.

While the petition remained undecided upon, I was called out of the Council Chamber, and very politely presented with the pamphlet by Newton, who, after making his best bow, said that the negroes had been informed that I was against the slave-trade, and was their friend. He had several more to give to particular members of the House of Representatives. Upon my returning into the chamber, I boasted, as I have since, that I was distinguished from all the other members of council by this mark of respect.
What was the outcome of Newton Prince's effort? This Massachusetts legislature voted to prohibit the slave trade from Africa, but did nothing to end slavery within the province. And then the royal governor vetoed the law against importing new slaves, anyway. Slavery did not end in Massachusetts until the high court decided in 1783 that such inequality went against the state constitution (the same basis for the court's 2003 marriage-equality decision).

And what happened to Newton Prince? I'll discuss his past and future in future posts.

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