Racism, Black Voices, Emancipation, and Constitution-Making in Massachusetts, 1778

by David Waldstreicher

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In early 1778, the Boston Independent Chronicle published a lengthy satirical poem entitled “The Constitution” that denounced Africans like “Phillis,” and their white allies, as potential voters. Two weeks later, in the same newspaper, a respondent who identified as Black (“Our different hue”) indicted the author of “The Constitution” on moral and political grounds. In strikingly more accomplished tetrameter couplets (answering, as was traditional, in the same poetic form, and also anonymously) the writer of “reply to The Constitution” questioned “The Constitution”’s proslavery racism. The nature and publicity of this exchange provide an opportunity to reassess the role of slavery and race in U.S. constitution-making. Even before the federal convention of 1787 and the ratification process, the issues of race and slavery were already present. The draft Constitution for Massachusetts in 1777-78 would have specifically disenfranchised the growing ranks of free men of color in Massachusetts. Black people had begun to appear in print with increasing frequency, making arguments against slavery and for equality—sometimes in verse, and usually anonymously, whereby they could participate without having to suffer personal consequences. Black voices, in other words—even disembodied, anonymous, speculative Black voices—were part of the constitutional conversation in Massachusetts in 1777-78. If that isn’t being present at the creation of the American republic, then terms like “founding” and “creation” lose most of their meaning.