A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.
African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts
"I heartily pitty the Southern States that still suffer the evil of Slavery..."
~Nathaniel Appleton, 26 February 1795
St. George Tucker's Queries on Slavery in Massachusetts

Signature of St. George TuckerIn January of 1795, St. George Tucker, a Virginia judge, wrote to the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston clergyman and scholar Jeremy Belknap.   This letter included a set of eleven queries regarding the history of slavery in Massachusetts. An abolitionist, Tucker was interested in the advent and eventual abolition of slavery in New England (and Massachusetts in particular), hoping that he could use the information to help bring an end to slavery in Virginia.

At Tucker's request, Belknap circulated a list of the queries to a number of prominent Massachusetts citizens, including Vice President John Adams. Belknap compiled the responses into a document that he forwarded to Tucker in April 1795. Belknap's responses (see online presentation of his manuscript draft) were also published in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, first series, volume IV in 1795.

Detail of published version of Jeremy Belknap's compiled responses

In addition to Belknap, many of the respondents were early members of the Massachusetts Historical Society.  The letters from this dialogue, as well as draft manuscripts of both the circular letter and compiled responses, form part of the Jeremy Belknap papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  The bulk of these responses, as well as Tucker's original queries, were published in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, fifth series, volume III, 1877.  Additionaly, the Signature of John Adamscorrespondence between Belknap and Tucker continued for many months after Belknap sent his compiled responses.  Their dialogue on slavery and abolition reveals a great deal about race relations in the eighteenth century.  St. George Tucker was eventually voted a corresponding member of the Historical Society; a distinction he politely declined.

Most of the men queried by Tucker and Belknap were adamant in their belief that slavery as an institution was morally wrong.  But they tempered their beliefs with fears related to the economic condition of freed African Americans, and the perceived problems associated with civil rights.  In a letter to Jeremy Belknap dated 21 March 1795, John Adams suggested that  "[j]ustice" for slaves, would mean not only Detail of Letter from Nathaniel Appleton, 26 February 1795freedom, but that "they should not be abandoned by their Masters and turned loose upon a world in which they have no capacity to procure even a subsistence."   In a letter dated 26 February 1795, Nathaniel Appleton stated that he "heartily [pitied] the Southern States that still suffer the evil of Slavery."

However, some other responses illustrate the difficult and prejudicial state of race relations in the 1790s.  James Winthrop, in a letter dated 4 March 1795, stated that although some African Americans had produced literary works that were "not contemptible," they were not "estimated for speculative abilities."  In a letter to Jeremy Belknap dated 27 November 1795, Tucker himself said that "Blacks and Mulattoes should be excluded from all the valuable rights of Citizenship" and that "narrow as this policy may appear, I am persuaded it is necessary for the preservation of the peace of Society."  He proposed using this denial of equal citizenship (along with other means) to prompt the liberated slaves to leave the United States.

This collection of letters, queries, and printed materials is also noteworthy from a historiographical perspective because it contains the recollections and opinions of people who lived through the end of slavery in Massachusetts.  It provides multiple contemporary sources of information about slavery in colonial Massachusetts written by some of the most prominent citizens of the Commonwealth.

Featured items

Tucker's request and responses gathered by Belknap

Belknap's answers to Tucker's questions

Ongoing discussion (via correspondence)





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