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title:“Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, and Samuel Field: Dissent to the Massachusetts Convention”
date written:1788-4-9

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last updated:Jan. 22, 2013, 8:00 a.m. UTC
retrieved:Nov. 13, 2019, 11:09 p.m. UTC

"Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, and Samuel Field: Dissent to the Massachusetts Convention." Northampton Hamshire Gazette 1788-04-09 : . Rpt. in The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Vol. 17. Ed. Gaspare J. Saladino and John P. Kaminski. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1995. 42-53. Print.

Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, and Samuel Field: Dissent to the Massachusetts Convention (April 9, 1788)

Mr. PRINTER, We the Subscribers being of the number, who did not assent to the ratification of the Federal Constitution, under consideration in the late State Convention, held at Boston, to which we were called by the suffrages of the corporations to which we respectively belong- beg leave, through the channel of your paper, to lay before the public in general, and our constituents in particular, the reasons of our dissent, and the principles which governed us in our decision of this important question.
Fully convinced, ever since the late revolution, of the necessity of a firm, energetic government, we should have rejoiced in an opportunity to have given our assent to such an one; and should in the present case, most cordially have done it, could we at the same time [have] been happy to have seen the liberties of the people and the rights of mankind properly guarded and secured. We conceive that the very notion of government carries along with it the idea of justice and equity, and that the whole design of instituting government in the world, was to preserve men's properties from rapine, and their bodies from violence and bloodshed.
These propositions being established, we conceive must of necessity produce the following consequence, viz. That every constitution or system, which does not quadrate with this original design, is not government, but in fact a subversion of it.
Having premised thus much, we proceed to mention some things in this constitution, to which we object, and to enter into an enquiry, whether, and how far they coincide with those simple and original notions of government beforementioned. In the first place- as direct taxes are to be apportioned according the numbers in each state, and as Massachusetts has none in it but what are declared freemen, so the whole, blacks as well as whites, must be numbered; this must therefore operate against us, as two fifths of the slaves in the southern states are to be left out of the numeration; consequently, three Massachusetts infants will increase the tax equal to five sturdy, full grown negroes of theirs, who work every day in the week for their masters, saving the Sabbath, upon which they are allowed to get something for their own support. We can see no justice in this way of apportioning taxes; neither can we see any good reason why this was consented to on the part of our delegates.1
We suppose it next to impossible that every individual in this vast continental union, should have his wish with regard to every single article, composing frame of government; and therefore, although we think it more agreeable to the principles of republicanism, that elections should be annual; yet as the elections in our own state government are so, we did not view it so dangerous to the liberties of the people, that we should have rejected the constitution merely on account of the biennial elections of the representatives, had we been sure that the people have any security, even of this; but this we could [not] find. For although it is said, that "the House of Representatives shall be chosen every second year, by the people of the several states," &c. and that "the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof " yet all this is wholly superseded by a subsequent provision, which empowers Congress at any time to enact a law, whereby such regulations may be altered, except as to the places of chusing senators. Here we conceive the people may be very materially injured, and in time reduced to a state of as abject vassallage, as any people were under the controul of the most mercenary despot, that ever tarnished the pages of history. The depravity of human nature, illustrated by examples from history, will warrant us to say, it may be possible, if not probable, that the Congress may be composed of men, who will wish to burthen and oppress the people. In such case, will not their inventions be fruitful enough to devise occasions for postponing the elections? And if they can do this once, they can twice- if they can twice they can thrice, so by degrees render themselves absolute and perpetual. Or, if they choose, they have another expedient; they can alter the place of holding elections. They can say, whatever the legislature of this state may order to the contrary, that all the elections of our representatives shall be made at Mechias, or at Williamstown; consequently, nine-tenths of the people will never vote. And if this should be thought a measure favourable to their re- election, or the election of some tool for their mercenary purposes, we doubt not it will be thus ordered. But says the advocates for the constitution, "it is not likely this will ever happen; we are not to expect our rulers will ever proceed to a wanton exercise of the powers given them." But what reason have we more than past ages, to expect that we shall be blessed with impeccable rulers? we think not any. Although it has been said that every generation grows wiser and wiser, yet we have no reason to think they grow better and better. And therefore the probability lies upon the dark side. Does not the experience of past ages teach, that men have generally exercised all the powers they had given them, and even have usurped upon them, in order to accomplish their own sinister and avaricious designs, whenever they thought they could do it with impunity? This we presume will not be denied. And it appeared to us that the arguments made use of by the favourers of the constitution, in the late Convention at Boston, proceeded upon the plan of righteousness in those who are to rule over us, by virtue of this new form of government. But these arguments, we confess, could have no weight with us, whilst we judged them to be founded altogether upon a slippery perhaps.
We are sensible, that in order to the due administration of govern- ment, it is necessary that certain powers should be delegated to the rulers, from the people. At the same time we think they ought carefully to guard against giving so much as will enable those rulers, by that means, at once, or even in process of time, to render themselves absolute and despotic. This we think is the case with the form of government lately submitted to our consideration. We could not, therefore, acting uprightly, consulting our own good and the good of our constituents, give our assent unto it. We could not then, we still cannot see, that because people are many times guilty of crimes, and deserving of punishment, that it from thence follows the authority ought to have power to punish them when they are not guilty, or to punish the innocent with the guilty without discrimination, which amounts to the same thing. But this we think in fact to be the case as to this federal constitution. For the Congress, whether they have provocation or not, can at any time order the elections in any or all the states, to be conducted in such manner as wholly to defeat and render entirely nugatory the intention of those elections, and convert that which was considered and intended to be the palladium of the liberties of the people- the grand bulwark against any invasion upon them, into a formidable engine, by which to overthrow them all, and thus involve them in the depth of misery and distress.2 But it was pled by some of the ablest advocates of the constitution, that if Congress should exercise such powers to the prejudice of the people (and they did not deny but they could if they should be disposed) they (the people) would not suffer it. They would have recourse to the ultima ratio the dernier resort of the oppressed- the sword.
But it appeared to us a piece of superlative incongruity indeed! that the people, whilst in the full and indefensible possession of their liberties and privileges, should be so very profuse, so very liberal in the disposal of them, as consequently to place themselves in a predicament miserable to an extreme- so wretched indeed, that they may at once be reduced to the sad alternative of yielding themselves vassals into the hands of a venal and corrupt administration, whose only wish may be to aggrandize themselves and families- to wallow in luxury and every species of discipation, and riot upon the spoils of the community; or take up the sword and involve their country in all the horrors of a civil war- the consequence of which, we think, we may venture to augur will more firmly rivet their shackles, and end in the entailment of vassallage to their posterity. We think this by no means can fall within the description of government beforementioned: Neither can we think these suggestions merely chimerical, or that they proceed from an over heated enthusiasm in favour of republicanism; neither yet from an ill- placed detestation of aristocracy; but from the apparent danger the people are in by establishing this constitution. When we take a forward view of the proposed Congress, seated in the federal city, ten miles square, fortified and replenished with all kinds of military stores, and every implement-with a navy at command on one side, and a land army on the other. We say, when we view them, thus possessed of the sword in one hand and the purse-strings of the people in the other, we can see no security left for them in the enjoyment of their liberties, but what may proceed from the bare possibility, that this supreme authority of the nation may be possessed of virtue and integrity sufficient to influence them in the administration of equal justice and equity among those whom they shall govern. But why should we voluntarily choose to trust our all upon so precarious a tenure as this? We confess it gives us pain to anticipate the future scene: a scene presenting to view miseries so complicated and extreme, that it may be part of the charms of eloquence to extenuate, or the power of art to remove.
But on to another thing, which (aside from every other consideration) was, and still is an insuperable objection in the way of our assent. This we find in the 9th section under the head of restrictions upon Congress, viz. "The migration or importation of such per- sons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress, prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight,"3 &c. It was not controverted in the Convention, but owned that this provision was made purely that the southern states might not be deprived of their profits arising from that most nefarious trade of enslaving the Africans. The hon. Mr. King himself who was an assistant in forming this constitution, in discoursing upon the slave trade, in the late Convention at Boston, was pleased to design it by this epithet, nefarious, which carries with it the idea of something peculiarly wicked and abominable: and indeed we think it deserving of this and every odious epithet which our language affords, descriptive of the iniquity of it. This being the case, we were naturally led to enquire why we should establish a constitution, which gives licence to a measure of this sort- How is it possible we could do it consistent with our ideas of government? consistent with the principles and documents- we endeavour to inculcate upon others? It is a standing law in the kingdom of Heaven, "Do unto others as ye would have others do unto you. This is the royal law- this we often hear inculcated upon others. But had we given our affirmative voice in this case, could we have claimed to ourselves that consistent line of conduct, which marks the path of every honest man? Should we not rather have been guilty of a contumelious repugnancy, to what we profess to believe is equitable and just?4 Let us for once bring the matter home to ourselves, and summons up our own feelings upon the occasion, and hear the simple sober verdict of our own hearts, were we in the place of those unhappy Africans- this is the test, the proper touch-stone by which to try the matter before us. Where is the man, who under the influence of sober dispassionate reasoning, and not void of natural affection, can lay his hand upon his heart and say, I am willing my sons and my daughters should be torn from me and doomed to perpetual slavery? We presume that man is not to be found amongst us: And yet we think the consequence is fairly drawn, that this is what everyman ought to be able to say, who voted for this constitution. But we dare say this will never be the case here, so long as the country has power to repel force by force. Notwithstanding this we will practise this upon those who are destitute of the power of repulsion: from whence we conclude it is not the tincture of a skin, or any disparity of features that are necessarily connected with slavery, and possibly may therefore fall to the lot of some who voted it, to have the same measure measured unto them which they have measured unto others. If we could once make it our own case, we should soon discover what distress & anxiety, what poignant feelings it would produce in our own breasts, to have our infants torn from the bosoms of their tender mothers-indeed our children of all ages, from infancy to manhood, arrested from us by a bandit of lawless ruffians, in defiance of all the laws of humanity, and carried to a country far distant, without any hopes of their return- attended likewise with the cutting reflection, that they were likely to undergo all those indignities, those miseries, which are the usual concomitants of slavery. Indeed when we consider the depredations committed in Africa, the cruelties exercised towards the poor captivated inhabitants of that country on their passage to this- crowded by droves into the holds of ships, suffering what might naturally be expected would result from scanty provisions, and inelastic infectious air, and after their arrival, drove like brutes from market to market, branded on their naked bodies with hot irons, with the initial letters of their masters names- fed upon the entrails of beasts like swine in the slaughter-yard of a butcher; and many other barbarities, of which we have documents well authenticated: then put to the hardest of labour, and to perform the vilest of drudges-their master (or rather usurpers) by far less kind and benevolent to them, than to their horses and their hounds. We say, when we consider these things (the recollection of which gives us pain) conscience applauds the dicision we have made, and we feel that satisfaction which arises from acting agreeable to its dictates. When we hear those barbarities pled for-When we see them voted for, (as in the late Convention at Boston) when we see them practised by those who denominate themselves Christians, we are presented with something truely heterogeneous-something monstrous indeed! Can we suppose this line of conduct keeps pace with the rule of right? Do such practices coincide with the plain and simple ideas of government beforementioned? By no means. We could wish it might be kept in mind, that the very notion of government is to protect men in the enjoyment of those privileges to which the[y] have a natural, therefore an indefeasible right; and not to be made an engine of rapine, robbery and murder. This is but establishing inequity, by law founded on usurpation. Establishing this constitution is, in our opinion[,] establishing the most ignominious kind of theft, man-stealing, and so heinous and agrivated was this crime considered, by ONE who cannot err, that under the Jewish theocracy it was punished with death. Indeed what can shew men scarcely more hardened, than being guilty of this crime? for there is nothing else they will stick at in order to perpetrate this.
The question therefore- Why should we vote for the establishment of this system? recoils upon us armed with treple force- force which sets at defiance, the whole power of sophistry, employed for the defence of those, who by a "cursed thirst for gold," are prompted on to actions, which cast an indelible stain upon the character of the human species- actions at which certain quadrupeds, were they possessed of Organs for the purpose, would discover a BLUSH.
But we were told by an honourable gentleman who was one of the framers of this Constitution, that the two souther[n] most states, absolutely refused to confederate at all, except they might be gratified in this article. What then? Was this an argument sufficient to induce us to give energy to this article, thus fraught with iniquity? By no means. But we were informed by that gentleman, further that those two states pled, that they had lost much of their property during the late war. Their slaves being either taken from them by the British troops, or they themselves taking the liberty of absconding from them, and therefore they must import more, in order to make up their losses. To this we say they lost no property, because they never had any in them, however much money they might have paid for them. For we look upon it, everyman is the sole proprietor of his own liberty, and no one but himself hath a right to convey it unless by some crime adequate to the punishment, it should be made forfeit, and so by that means becomes the property of government:5 But this is by no means the case in the present instance. And we cannot suppose a vendee, can acquire property in any thing, which at the time of purchase, he knew the vendor had no right to convey. This is an acknowledgment, we are constrained to make as a tribute due to justice and equity. But suppose they had lost real property; so have we; and indeed where is the man, but will tell us he has been a great looser by means of the war? And shall we from thence argue that we have a right to make inroads upon another nation, pilfer and rob them, in order to compensate ourselves for the losses we have sustained by means of a war, in which they had been utterly neutral? Truly upon this plan of reasoning it is lawful thus to do, and had we voted the constitution as it stands, we must have given countenance to conduct equally criminal, and more so, if possible. Such arguments as the above seem to be calculated and designed for idiotcy. We however acknowledge, we think them rather an affront, even upon that.
The hon Gentleman above named, was asked the question- What would be the consequence, suppose one or two states, upon any principle, should refuse confederating? His answer was- "The consequence is plain and easy they would be compelled to it; not by force of arms; but all commerce with them would be interdicted; their property would be seized in every port they should enter, and by law made forfeit: and this line of conduct would soon reduce them to order." This method of procedure perhaps no one would be disposed to reprehend; and if eleven, or even nine states were agreed, could they not, ought they not to take this method, rather than to make a compact with them, by which they give countenance, nay even bind themselves (as the case may be) to aid and assist them in spor[t]ing with the liberties of others, and accumulating to themselves fortunes, by making thousands of their fellow creatures miserable. To animadvert upon the British mancevres at that time, would not fall within the compass of our present design. But that the Africans had a right to depart, we must assert, and are able to prove it from the highest authority perhaps that this Commonwealth does or ever did afford. In a printed pamphlet, published in Boston in the year 1772, said to be the report of a Committee, and unanimously voted by said town, and ordered to be sent to the several towns in the state for their consideration. In said pamphlet we find the following axiom, which we will quote verbatim,- page 2d- "All men have a right to remain in a state of nature as long as they please, and in case of intolerable oppression, civil or religious, to leave the society they belong to, and enter into another. If it can by any kind of reasoning be made to appear, that this authority is not pertinently adduced in the case before us, then we think it can by the same reasoning be investigated, that black is white and white is black- that oppression and freedom are exactly similar, and benevolence and malignity synonymous terms.
The advocates for the constitution seemed to suppose, that this restriction being laid upon Congress only for a term of time, is the "fair dawning of liberty." That "it was a glorious acquisition towards the final abolition of slavery. But how much more glorious would the acquisition have been, was such abolition to take place the first moment the constitution should be established. If we had said that after the expiration of a certain term the practice should cease, it would have appeared with a better grace; but this is not the case, for even after that, it is wholly optional with the Congress, whether they abolish it or not. And by that time we presume the enslaving the Africans will be accounted by far less an inconsiderable affair than it is at present: therefore conclude from good reasons, that the "nefarious practice" will be continued and increased as the inhabitants of the country shall be found to increase.
This practice of enslaving mankind is in direct opposition to a fundamental maxim of truth, on which our state constitution is founded, viz. "All men are born free and equal. This is our motto. We have said it- we cannot go back. Indeed no man can justify himself in enslaving another, unless he can produce a commission under the broad seal of Heaven, purporting licence therefor from him who created all men, and can therefore dispose of them at his pleasure.
We would not be thought to detract from the character of any person, but to us it is somewhat nearly paradoxical, that some of our leading characters in the law department (especially in the western counties) after having (to their honour be it spoken) exerted themselves to promote, and finally to effect the emancipation of slaves, should now turn directly about, and exhibit to the world principles diametrically opposite thereto: that they should now appear such strenuous advocates for the establishment of that diabolical trade of importing the Africans. But said some, it is not we who do it- and compared it to entering into an alliance with another nation, for some particular purpose; but we think this by no means a parallel. We are one nation, forming constitution for the whole, and suppose the states are under obligation, whenever this constitution shall be established, reciprocally to aid each other in defence and support of every thing to which they are entitled thereby, right or wrong. Perhaps we may never be called upon to take up arms for the defence of the southern states, in prosecuting this abominable traffick.
It is true at present there is not much danger to be apprehended, and for this plain reason are those innocent Africans (as to us) pitched upon to drag out their lives in misery and chains. Such is their local situation- their unpolished manners- their inexperience in the art of war, that those invaders of the rights of mankind know they can, at present, perpetrate those enormities with impunity. But let us suppose for once, a thing which is by no means impossible, viz. that those Africans should rise superior to all their local and other disadvantages, and attempt to avenge themselves for the wrongs done them? Or suppose some potent nation should interfere in their behalf, as France in the cause of America, must we not rise and resist them? Would not the Congress immediately call forth the whole force of the country, if needed, to oppose them, and so attempt more closely to rivet their manacles upon them, and in that way perpetuate the miseries of those unhappy people? This we think the natural consequence which will flow from the establishment of this constitution, and that it is not a forced, but a very liberal construction of it. It was said that "the adoption of this Constitution, would be ominous of much good, and betoken the smiles of Heaven upon the country." But we view the matter in a very different light; we think this lurch for unjust gains, this lust for slavery, portentous of much evil in America, for the cry of innocent blood, which hath been shed in carrying on this execrable commerce, hath undoubtedly reached to the Heavens, to which that is always directed, and will draw down upon them vengeance adequate to the enormity of the crime. To what other cause, than a full conviction, of the moral evil in this practice, together with some fearful forebodings of punishment therefor arising in the minds of the Congress in the year 1774, can it be imputed, that drew from them at that time, (at least an implied) confession of guilt, and a solemn, explicit promise reformation? This is a fact, but lest it should be disputed, we think it most safe for ourselves to lay before our readers, an extract from a certain pamphlet, entitled "Extracts from the votes and proceedings of the American Continental Congress, held at Philadelphia, on the 5th of September, 1774, &c." In the 22d page of this same pamphlet, we find the following paragraph, viz. "Second. That we will neither import, nor purchase any slave imported, after the first day of December next; after which time we will wholly discontinue the slave-trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it." The inconsistency of opposing slavery, which they thought designed for themselves, and by clandestine means, procuring others to enslave at the same time-it is very natural to suppose would stare them in the face, and at all times guard them against breaking their resolution. Hence it appears to us unaccountable strange, that any person who signed the above resolve, should sign the federal constitution. For do they not hold up to view principles diametrically opposite? Can we suppose that what was morally evil in the year 1774, has become in the year 1788, morally good? Or shall we change evil into good and good into evil, as often as we find it will serve a turn? We cannot but say the conduct of those who associated in the year 1774 in the manner above, and now appear advocates for this new constitution, is highly inconsistent, although we find such conduct has the celebrated names of a Washington and an Adams to grace it. And this may serve as a reason why we could not be wrought upon by another argument, which was made use of in the Convention in favour of the constitution, viz. the weight of names-a solid argument with some people who belonged to the Convention, and would have induced them to comply with measures of almost any kind. It was urged that the gentlemen who composed the federal Convention, were men of the greatest abilities, integrity and erudition, and had been the greatest contenders for freedom. We suppose it to be true, and that they have exemplified it, by the manner, in which they have earnestly dogmatized for liberty-But notwithstanding could not view this argument, as advancing anywhere towards infallibility-because long before we entered upon the business of the Convention, we were by some means or other possessed with a notion (and we think from good authority) that "great men are not always wise." And to be sure the weight of a name adduced to give efficacy to a measure where liberty is in dispute, cannot be so likely to have its intended effect, when the person designed by that name, at the same time he is brandishing his sword, in the behalf of freedom for himself-is likewise tyranizing over two or three hundred miserable Africans, as free born as himself.
In fine we view this constitution as a curious piece of political mechanism, fabricated in such manner as may finally despoil the people of all their privileges; and we are fully satisfied, that had the same system been offered to the people in the time of the contest with Great-Britain, the person offering the same would not have met the approbation of those who now appear the most strenuous advocates for it. We cannot slip this opportunity of manifesting our disgust at the unfair methods which were taken in order to obtain a vote in this state, which perhaps was the means of producing the small majority of nineteen, out of nearly three hundred and sixty members. What those methods were is well known. It is past dispute that the opposers of the constitution were, in sundry instances, treated in a manner utterly inconsistent with that respect which is due to every freeborn citizen of the commonwealth, especially when acting in the capacity of a representative.
Notwithstanding what has been said, we would not have it understood, that we mean to be disturbers of the peace, should the states receive the constitution; but on the contrary, declare it our intention, as we think it our duty, to be subject to "the powers that be," wherever our lot may be cast.

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