Object of the Month: January 2017: 1773 Pembroke Letter Supporting Massachusetts Abolition

In November 1772 Boston patriots formed a Committee of Correspondence and encouraged others towns throughout Massachusetts to do the same. This provided a powerful voice to the Patriot cause at a vital local level – the town meeting. The first publication of Boston’s Committee was a list of grievances against Britain and a request for endorsement of those beliefs. The town of Pembroke [which also included the town of Hanson] formed their own Committee of Correspondence in response to this letter. On 28 December 1772 the town elected John Turner, Abel Stetson, Jeremiah Hall, and Seth Hatch to Pembroke’s Committee of Correspondence “to support the cause of liberty & property; and so subscribe ourselves hearty friends and well-wishers in the cause aforesaid.” The town then voted to support the pamphlet published by Boston’s Committee and they agreed to publish their own pamphlet in response, known as the Pembroke Resolves. [Boston Evening Post, 11 Jan. 1773, p. 2.]

In January 1773 Felix Holbrook, who had been enslaved for over two decades by Boston schoolteacher Abiah Holbrook, petitioned the Massachusetts government on behalf of all Massachusetts slaves to abolish slavery in Massachusetts. Felix and his supporters were emboldened by the creation of these Committees of Correspondence which publicly discussed revolutionary ideals. Felix’s first petition, however, was framed using religious and moral arguments, rather than patriotic language. The petition was denied, but the discussion generated during the session gave Felix “a high degree of satisfaction.” Therefore, on 20 April 1773, Felix Holbrook and three other slaves – Peter Bestes, Sambo Freeman, and Chester Joie, again petitioned the Massachusetts government to abolish slavery in Massachusetts. This time their arguments strongly paralleled the Patriots’ own arguments defending the right to break free from Britain’s “enslavement” of the colonists. Felix and the others “expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them.” Felix’s first petition had generated much discussion and complaints at the Massachusetts Assembly about the financial losses of slave-masters if slavery was abolished. The petitioners acknowledged “we are very sensible that it would be highly detrimental to our present masters, if we were allowed to demand all that of right belongs to us for past services,” and so argued that if abolition were granted, “we are willing to submit to such regulations and laws, as may be made relative to us, until we leave the province, which we determine to do as soon as we can from our joynt labours procure money to transport ourselves to some part of the coast of Africa, where we propose a settlement.”

Boston’s Committee of Correspondence was favorable to this petition. On 17 May 1773 Pembroke held its town meeting to elect a Representative to the Massachusetts Assembly. They chose their town clerk, John Turner, and also voted that Turner should read aloud a series of instructions elected by the town, because they held it vital “In this time of general danger and distress, when our Civil Rights are torn from us by peacemeals, and Acts of the British Parliament still enforced, which are manifestedly inconsistent with our character, and as we think directly contrary to a fundamental principle of the British Constitution.”

Pembroke included a favorable response to Felix Holbrook’s April petition and argued that God himself might grant white colonists their freedom from England if they themselves granted freedom to their slaves:

“We think the Negro Petition reasonable – agreeable to natural justice and the precepts of the Gospel, and therefore advise that in concurrence with the other worthy members of the Assembly; you endeavour to find a way in which they may be freed from slavery without wrong to their present masters or injury to themselves – and that a total abolition of slavery may in due time take place; then we trust we may with humble confidence look up to the Great Arbiter of Heaven and Earth, expecting that he will in his own due time look upon our Affliction, and in the way of his Providence deliver us from the insults, the grievances, and impositions we so justly complain of.”

1773 Pembroke Instructions.jpg

Boston Gazette (Boston, Mass.), 14 June 1773.

 

John Turner wore many hats in this process – as town clerk, selectman, and head of Pembroke’s Committee of Correspondence, he wrote the list of instructions he presented at the Massachusetts Assembly following his election as Pembroke’s Representative. However, the Massachusetts Assembly again denied Felix Holbrook’s petition. Additional petitions to abolish slavery were presented to the Massachusetts Assembly throughout the Revolutionary War. Although each petition was denied by the electorate, it generated a great deal of discussion and disagreement among Massachusetts’ politicians and general populace. General support for abolition grew throughout the decade, and in 1783 a series of Supreme Court judicial rulings led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

Recently, the Pembroke Historical Commission has held lengthy and ongoing discussions concerning the possible preservation of John Turner’s house, derelict and located behind a gas station on the corner of routes 53 and 14 in Pembroke, as a new fire station is slated to be constructed on the Turner lot.

johnturnerhouse

John Turner House, 2013, Photograph Courtesy of Deborah Wall.

And what became of Felix Holbrook? He married Lusanna Cato of Scituate, daughter of an enslaved father Caesar Cato/Torrey and Massachuset Indian mother Sarah Wapping, in Scituate’s First Church in 1772. He was manumitted by Abiah Holbrook’s widow, and his family removed to Providence, where he was a founding member of the Providence African Union Society which planned, but never executed, an expedition to bring former slaves to Sierra Leone.

 

[Written by Hanson Historical Society Curator Mary Blauss Edwards]

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