For an entire week the first four sections of Article I of the proposed Constitution commanded the attention of delegates to the Massachusetts ratification convention. At this rate, the convention could drag on for months, but the issues were too important to be passed over without serious inspection and more than three hundred fifty delegates had the right to speak…and speak they did!
Ebenezer Pierce, an attorney from Partridgefield, demanded to know why there were no property qualifications for representatives. “It might be in the power of some people thereby to choose a bankrupt for a representative,” he charged. Gen. Samuel Thompson agreed. “When men have nothing to lose,” he cautioned, “they have nothing to fear.” Theodore Sedgwick and Rufus King fought back. Thompson’s position “was founded on an anti-democratical principle,” Sedgwick argued, surprised that Thompson, “a gentleman who appeared so strenuously to advocate the rights of the people, should wish to exclude from the federal government a good man, because he was not a rich one.”
King reported that such a qualification had been discussed at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia but the delegates from Massachusetts had led the fight against it. Frankly, he “never knew that property was an index to abilities.” King then explained why the Constitution counted three-fifths of slaves for the purpose of numbering the population to determine direct taxation and representation in the House of Representatives. This formula had been adopted in the Articles of Confederation, he said, and was thus familiar to all the States.
Samuel Nasson, a leader in Sanford, Maine, responded, wishing “the honorable gentleman should have gone further and shown us the other side of question.” He should also “have told us,” he said, “that three of our infants in the cradle are to be rated as five of the working negroes of Virginia.” Nasson’s comment referred to an earlier statement by King that “five negro children of South Carolina were equally ratable as three governors of New England.” By this reckoning, Nasson said, Massachusetts, “will pay as great a tax for three children in the cradle, as any of the Southern States will for five hearty, working negro men.” He hoped, “while we were making a new government, we should make it better than the old, for if we had made a bad bargain before, as had been hinted, it was a reason why we should make a better one now.”
The value of one free person against three non-free persons and how such a calculation might benefit one State against another continued to be debated until Thomas Dawes interjected, drawing on another provision of the Constitution. He began by observing that “the black inhabitants of the Southern States must be considered either as slaves, and as so much property, or in the character of so many freemen; if the former, why should they not be wholly represented? Our own state laws and constitution would lead us to consider these blacks as freemen, and so indeed would our own ideas of natural justice. If then, they are freemen, they might form an equal basis for representation as though they were all white inhabitants.”
But Dawes went further, turning the delegates’ attention to Article 1 Section 9, permitting Congress to prohibit the importation of slaves in 1808 and to “impose a duty of ten dollars a head on such blacks as should be imported before that period.” Under the new Constitution, he added, each State is left to its own option regarding slavery. What else could the Constitutional Convention do? he asked. “The members of the Southern States, like ourselves, have their prejudices. It would not do to abolish slavery by an act of Congress in a moment and so destroy what our southern brethren consider as property. But we may say that, although slavery is not smitten by an apoplexy, yet it has received a mortal wound and will die of a consumption.” Like many others, Dawes looked forward to the day when slavery would no longer mar the landscape of the United States and saw the seeds of that change in the Constitution.
Trained as a mason and well-connected to other craftsmen in Boston, Dawes had become a friend of Sam Adams and John Hancock in the early years of resistance to British rule and served as a colonel in the Massachusetts militia and in the convention that drafted the Massachusetts constitution. Over time, he matured as a mason and eventually become an architect and builder, counting among his projects the Brattle Street Church (where the ratifying convention had met for only one day) as well as the Old State House where the convention was in full swing. Even though Dawes had no legal training, in 1792, he will be appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Singletary, a member of the State Senate and devout Baptist, raised another issue concerning representation – the lack of a religious qualification for federal officials. Questioning this omission, Singletary avowed his “hope to see Christians, yet, by the Constitution, a Papist, or an Infidel was as eligible as they. In this instance, we are giving great power to we know not whom.”
As the debate dragged on, the convention was interrupted on Monday, January 21, by attention to a brief article in the Boston Gazette. Under the headline BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION! an unknown author styling himself as “Centinel” alleged “the most diabolical plan is on foot to corrupt members of the Convention who oppose the adoption of the Constitution” funded by “the wealthy.”
Immediately, the convention resolved to investigate and ordered the printers to appear before the convention “forthwith, to give information respecting the said publication.” That afternoon, the printers, Benjamin Edes & Son, responded in a letter, claiming “Centinel” had a “good foundation” for his assertion but refused to identify him. Edes’ letter was committed to a committee for further investigation.
Edes himself had been an activist in revolutionary politics in Boston and a member of the Sons of Liberty. He had used the Boston Gazette as a voice for independence by attacking the Stamp Act, the Tea Tax, and other unpopular British impositions. The paper published the writings of Sam Adams and other Patriots and was a major influence sparking and financing the Boston Tea Party, prompting the royal governor to advise that Edes and his co-publisher, John Gill, be arrested for sedition. Later, Edes was nearly captured during the Siege of Boston but disguised as a fisherman escaped to Watertown where he continued to publish. Andrew Oliver, Royal Lt. Gov., had called the Boston Gazette “that infamous paper,” but admitted “the temper of the people may be surely learned from it.”