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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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Evidence in Edward Jackson’s Libel Case?

On 16 Aug 1753, the Rev. Edward Jackson of Woburn petitioned the Superior Court to reconsider the verdict against him in his libel suit against the Rev. Josiah Cotton, a verdict which implied he really was the father of Kezia Hincher’s illegitimate child. New evidence had come to light, he said.

A local tradition held that one of Jackson’s local enemies gave an enslaved servant a letter for Hincher. That slave asked one of Jackson’s own slaves for directions to where the widow lived, and Jackson’s slave took the letter to the minister. The local historian Samuel Sewall wrote:

The letter may reasonably be supposed to have been unsealed; for what the need of seals to letters, carried by the hand of a poor ignorant African, that had never learnt the alphabet, and to whom English and Latin, Greek and Hebrew were all alike?

Seeing it to be in this condition. Mr. Jackson ventured to open it; and finding that its contents furnished a complete exposure of the falsity of the charge against him, or a direct clew to such a discovery, he quickly copied it, and’ keeping the original for his own use, he returned the copy...
This tale flatters the racist wish to see black people as foolish, and it excuses Jackson from looking at someone else’s mail. But it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on several counts:
  • There was no need for Jackson’s slave to take the letter and return it to the other man’s slave if he simply went to ask the minister for directions.
  • Some enslaved people did know how to read, and some letters did get lost, so anyone sending a potentially embarrassing document would seal it—if he was foolhardy enough to put such remarks in writing at all.
  • Folks in Woburn had been living in the middle of ministerial feuds for twenty years. And people aren’t stupid just because they’re held in bondage (though thinking they are makes that bondage thing easier to do). The idea that a slave of one of Jackson’s enemies would blithely walk up to the minister’s servant and had over a private letter is ridiculous.
  • Locating Kezia Hincher in a town of only 1,575 people (per the 1765 census) shouldn’t have been hard. She was still living with her brother-in-law, Ebenezer Richardson. (By this time her sister Rebecca had died, leaving Ebenezer a widower.)
So if Jackson did come across a letter from one of his accusers, this wasn’t how it happened. His new evidence probably took another form. In any event, something happened in August 1753 that sent Jackson back to court to reverse the judgment against him.

TOMORROW: What happened in court—and what didn’t.


Chaucerian said...

Do you have a date for the (ignorant and benighted) comment? And do you know who is the commentor? I looked up "Samuel Sewell," the Judge, whom you refer to often, and he seems to have been dead by this point, so perhaps it was a descendant writing? I am curious to know in what historic context the writer existed, and particularly whether the writing was done in the run-up to the American Civil War. (But, thinking about the comment generally, I can see that the writer is clearly in the same state of dimness which believes that store clerks know nothing about their customers, students know nothing about their teachers, and so on . . . )

J. L. Bell said...

This Samuel Sewall indeed wrote about the time of the U.S. Civil War. His History of Woburn was published posthumously in 1868, with a memorial biography of its author.

(I spelled Sewall’s name with two Es, as it appears in some databases, but have now changed that to match the title page of his book.)

Sewall’s anecdote about the slaves is even more casually racist in its whole than in the part I quoted here: made-up names, dialect, references to “simplicity.”

Judge Samuel Sewall, an ancestor, was indeed long dead by this point, and also earned a spot for himself in New England history by advocating an end of slavery long before it was cool.

By the time this Sewall was writing, most New Englanders had reached a consensus that slavery was a mistake of the past, but fortunately now someone else’s problem. They were divided as to how aggressively to try to fix that problem for those other people.

Mr Punch said...

I'm not sure your comments hold up. The text quoted merely says that the first slave was illiterate, which is not unlikely. And it's not all that unlikely, either, that he (not necessarily being one of Jackson's enemies) would ask Jackson's slave for directions. The latter seems to have been pretty sharp, by this account -- not only was he the go-to guy for directions, but he knew enough to guess that Jackson would want to see a letter to that recipient.

I doubt, however, that the letter was unsealed.

J. L. Bell said...

Oh, come on—after twenty years of feuds in Woburn, the enslaved man with the letter surely knew that his master wouldn’t want it or any other embarrassing evidence under the minister’s control. And this anecdote offers no reason for the man to turn over the letter while asking for directions.

The letter-carrier needn’t have shared his master’s enmity, I agree; he and Jackson’s slave might even have gotten together to laugh about their owners’ feud. I can imagine other scenarios of the letter-carrier deliberately leaking the document because he was upset at his owner, or because he believed his owner was doing something wrong. (I can even imagine in those cases the letter-carrier lying to his master and saying he’d turned the letter over out of ignorance, causing the town’s white citizens to pass that story down.)

But this story is predicated entirely on the black men’s ignorance, the minister’s innocence, and the other master’s arrogance. Only the last seems convincing, and even then both of us have doubts about an unsealed document.