Primary Resource

Letter from St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap (January 24, 1795)

In a letter to the clergyman and historian Jeremy Belknap, of the Massachusetts Historical Society, St. George Tucker inquires about how the New England state abolished slavery. Tucker was beginning work and what became A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, In the State of Virginia (1796).

Transcription from Original

Williamsburg, Virginia, Jan. 24, 1795.

Sir,—Having never visited the Eastern States, it has been my misfortune never to have had the pleasure of a personal acquaintance with any of those eminent literary characters which that part of the United States has produced, and, if I may credit Fame, abounds with, more than nay other part of our common country; a circumstance probably not more mortifying to myself than of real disadvantage to this part of the United States, since a more frequent intercourse and intimate acquaintance between the several parts of the Union would probably contribute more to remove local prejudices and cement the bond of union than any other project, unsupported by such a foundation. To supply, as far as respects myself, this inconvenience in some measure, I have prevailed on my friend, the Rev. Mr. Hust, to favor me with a letter of introduction, which I take the liberty to enclose, and to request your pardon for thus intruding my correspondence upon you; a liberty which private considerations alone could scarcely justify on any account, and which, I fear, you will think fully commensurate to the occasion which prompts it.

The introduction of slavery into this country is at this day considered among its greatest misfortunes by a very great majority of those who are reproached for an evil which the present generation could no more have avoided than an hereditary gout or leprosy. The malady has proceeded so far as to render it doubtful whether any specific can be found to eradicate, or even to palliate, the disease. Having, in my official character as pro-

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fessor of law in the college at this place [College of William and Mary], had occasion to notice the several acts of the legislature on the subject, I find that, even before the commencement of the present century, an attempt was made to check the importation of slaves, by imposing a duty on them. The act was indeed only temporary, but was renewed as often as the influence of the African Company in England would permit. At length the duty was made payable by the buyers; but the acts imposing it were still temporary, through constantly renewed whenever an extraordinary supply of money was required, and was gradually increased from five to twenty per cent, ad valorem. As soon as the Revolution took place, the legislature passed an act prohibiting the importation of slaves, under the severest penalties; and permitting, what had hitherto been prohibited, the voluntary emancipation of them by their masters. The question of a general emancipation has not, that I know, been brought on the carpet in the legislature; but I am fully persuaded the circumstance is altogether owing to the difficulties which present themselves to every reflecting mind. To assist in removing them is the object of this letter; for having observed, with much pleasure, that slavery has been wholly exterminated from the Massachusetts, and being impressed with an idea that it once had existence there, I have cherished a hope that we may, from the example of our sister State, learn what methods are most likely to succeed in removing the same evil from among ourselves. With this view, I have taken the liberty to enclose a few queries, which, if your leisure will permit you to answer, you will confer on me a favor which I shall always consider as an obligation; and if, in the pursuits in which you are engaged, any subject should occur in which you may be disposed to obtain information from this quarter, I will not promise to afford it you, but I assure that I will most faithfully endeavour to do it. I am, very respectfully, sir.

Your most obedient and very humble servant,

St. G. Tucker,

Please direct to St. George Tucker, Williamsburg, Virginia.

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Queries respecting the Introduction, Progress, and Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts.

1st. The first introduction of negroes or other slaves in Massachusetts?

2d. Whether the African trade was carried on thither? at what period it commenced? to what extent it was carried on? when it began to decline? and when it was wholly discontinued?

3d. Whether it was carried on by European or American adventurers? by what means its declension first began? whether from legislative discouragement or other causes? and to what causes its abolition is to be ascribed?

4th. The state of slavery in the Massachusetts when slaves were most numerous? their number when most numerous? their proportion to the number of white persons at that period?

5th. The mode by which slavery hath been abolished there? whether by a general and simultaneous emancipation? or at different periods? or whether by declaring all persons born after a particular period free?

6th. At what period slavery was wholly abolished? what were their numbers and proportion to the whites at that period?

7th. What is the condition of emancipated negroes? is any, and what, provision made for their education and maintenance during infancy, or in a state of decrepitude, age, or insanity?

8th. What are their political rights or disabilities? if there be any discrimination between them and white persons?

9th. Is there any perceptible difference between the general moral or social conduct of emancipated persons, or their descendants, and others?

10th. Are intermarriages frequent between blacks and whites? if so, are such alliances more frequent between black men and white women, or the contrary?

11th. Does harmony in general prevail between the blacks and white citizens? do they associate freely together? or is there a pre-eminence claimed by the one, and either avowedly or tacitly admitted by the other? 

Williamsburg, Virginia, January 24, 1795.