Constitution Sunday: General William Heath on Slavery

Massachusetts Ratifying Convention

January 30, 1788

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, it was not a uniquely American question of how to deal with the concept of slavery. It was an institution that, as each year passed, was becoming more and more antiquated; a relic of a time when treating humans as beasts was widespread and accepted. Yet the question remained of how a federal government or other states could wean a part of society—in the United States, the South—off of slavery. Then, there was the question of whether a federal government or other states should even be so intimately involved in another state’s business.

At the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, General William Heath spoke of the issue of slavery and perhaps best captured the spirit of the time. He said, “I think the gentlemen who have spoken, have carried the matter rather too far on both sides,—I apprehend that it is not in our power to do any thing for, or against, those who are in slavery in the southern States.” He continued, “No gentleman within these walls detests every idea of slavery more than I do: It is generally detested by the people of this Commonwealth,—and I ardently hope that the time will soon come, when our brethren in the southern States will view it as we do, and put a stop to this, but to this we have no right to compel them.”

For General Heath, ratifying the Constitution raised two questions: “shall we do any thing by our act to hold the blacks in slavery” or “shall we become partakers of other men’s sins.” He concluded that they should do neither: “Each State is sovereign and independent to a certain degree, and they have a right, and will regulate their own internal affairs, as to themselves appears proper; and shall we refuse to eat, or to drink, or to be united, with those who do not think, or act, just as we do, surely not.” And based on the fact that they should do nothing to “voluntarily encourage the slavery of our fellow men,” they were not “partakers of other mens sins.” Above all else, the federal Convention had “went as far as they could” on the issue of importing slaves and had properly used the power bestowed upon it in doing so. This wasn’t to say that slavery would cease to exist in the near future, however; for General Heath, he did “not pretend to determine” but “rather doubt[ed]” that emancipation would occur in the ensuing twenty years.

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