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January 17, 1788

February 21, 2021 - 4 minute read


Old State House

Despite heavy snow in the dead of winter impeding travel for many delegates, the Massachusetts ratifying convention convened on time on January 9 in the Boston State House at the intersection of Washington and State Streets, the Council Chamber looking toward Long Wharf and the harbor. Built in 1713, it was the oldest public building in Boston and already considered one of the most important buildings in colonial America.

Above the first floor, which housed the Merchant’s Exchange, were the Council Chamber for the Royal Governor and the judicial chambers for the courts of Suffolk County and the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. Situated between the Governor’s office and the courts were the chambers for the Assembly and Senate, complete with public galleries where the people could hear their elected officials debate issues of the day – the first place such a feature existed in the English-speaking world. A balcony extended from the Governor’s office, bordered on either side with sculptures of a lion and unicorn, symbols of the King of Great Britain.

The building’s storied revolutionary history had begun in 1761 when James Otis opposed the Writs of Assistance before the court, arguing that they violated the constitutional rights of Englishmen. Although he lost the case, his friend and fellow lawyer, John Adams, had attended the meeting and later announced that “then and there the child independence was born.” Nine years later, the infamous Boston Massacre took place in the space under the balcony. In the melee that resulted in the deaths of five men of Boston, Crispus Attucks, born into slavery, was the first to fall, becoming the first casualty of the American Revolution.

On July 18, 1776, after reading the Declaration of Independence to the members of the legislature, Col. Thomas Crafts strode on to the balcony to read the Declaration to the crowd waiting anxiously below. Later in the day, the lion and unicorn and other symbols of royal authority were removed and burned in Dock Square.

Boston’s history and prominence in the causes of liberty and self-government loomed large in the minds of the delegates now assembled to debate the proposed Constitution, but first, procedural issues had to be addressed. With more than 150 years of organizing town meetings, these experienced delegates quickly and efficiently set about organizing their convention. On the first day, even before the mid-day recess, the convention created a committee to receive election returns from the towns; elected and swore in a secretary; appointed messengers and five monitors; and designated a committee of seven to prepare rules of procedure.

The flurry of organizational activity resumed in the afternoon. Samuel Adams, firebrand of the revolution, offered a successful motion that daily sessions begin with prayer and that “gentlemen of the clergy, of every denomination, be requested to officiate in turn.” Next, realizing a larger facility would be needed to accommodate 370 delegates as well as room for the public to observe, a committee was appointed to visit a church on Brattle Street which had offered the use of its meeting house.

The same day, the convention elected Governor John Hancock as its president and Col. William Cushing as Vice President. Because of Hancock’s debilitating bouts of gout would keep him bedridden much of the time, it was unlikely that he would attend and preside over the convention. In his absence, the vice president would preside. The choice was important and an early victory for pro-constitution advocates. While Hancock was immensely popular, his views about the proposed Constitution remained unknown. Cushing, on the other hand, had publicly endorsed the Constitution.

Cushing was the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. First appointed in 1777 by the provincial congress, Cushing had presided over a series of cases which effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts. Relying on a provision of the 1780 Massachusetts constitution declaring that “all men are born free and equal,” Cushing had stated in his charge to the jury in Commonwealth v. Jennison (1783):

“Whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed or slid in upon us by the examples of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses-features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal – and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property – and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. That being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature, unless his liberty is forfeited by some criminal conduct or given up by person consent or contract…”

Jennison relied largely on a suit brought by Elizabeth Freeman (also known as Mum Bett) in 1781 to secure her freedom, basing her case on the same language of the Massachusetts constitution. Suing for her freedom as patriots were fighting against the British for theirs, Freeman later said, “Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.” A jury of twelve farmers, all male and white, ruled in her favor in a Massachusetts county court.

Freeman’s attorney was Theodore Sedgwick, an attorney who had been active in the revolutionary movement. He also owned several house slaves. Nevertheless, he accepted Freeman’s case and later supported antislavery legislation and joined the Abolition Society of Pennsylvania. As a free woman, Freeman worked for the Sedgwicks until her death in 1829 and was buried in the Sedgwick in Stockbridge. Sedgwick will become one of the most important Federalist, pro-Constitution delegates to the Massachusetts ratifying convention and leader in the new government under the Constitution.

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