“Declaration of Sentiments of the Colored Citizens of Boston”




Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum

Original Record


Printed by the Friends of Freedom organization, this declaration served as the Boston African American community’s response to the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. Lewis Hayden, William C. Nell, and Robert Morris are among the local leaders mentioned in this document.


Questions to Consider

  1. What are the arguments against slavery mentioned in this document?
  2. Why do they consider the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional?
  3. According to this Declaration, how does Boston’s Black community intend to respond to the Fugitive Slave Law?



Per adjournment, the friends of freedom rallied at Belknap Street Church, on Friday evening, Oct. 4, 1850. A vast concourse, including fugitives and their friends, were in attendance. The organization was completed, as follows: — LEWIS HAYDEN, President; JOHN T. HILTON, WILLIAM CRAFTS, HENRY WATSON, Vice-Presidents; Wm. C. NELL, ISAAC H. SNOWDEN, Secretaries.

The President stated that the present was an adjourned meeting from that of last Monday, and trusted the vigilant friends had come prepared for definite action on the Fugitive Slave Bill. Though the people were seventeen millions strong, he trusted to influences such as might emanate from these meetings, for its nullification. The party was now augmented, who knew their rights, and knowing, dare maintain them.

On motion of Robert Morris, Esq., the report of the Committee chosen at the last meeting was read by Wm. C. Nell, Chairman of said Committee, and is as follows:

The Fugitive Slave Bill (exhibited in its hideous deformity at our previous meeting) has already, in hot haste, commenced its bloody crusade o’er the land, and the liability of ourselves and families becoming its victims, at the caprice of Southern men-stealers, imperatively demands an expression whether we will tamely submit to chains and slavery, or whether we will, at all and every hazard, live and die freemen.

The system of American slavery, the vilest ever saw the sun, is a violation of every sentiment of Christianity, and the antipodes of every dictate of humanity. The slaveholder’s pretensions to a claim on human property are of no more weight than those of the midnight assassin or the pirate on the high seas. God made all men free,–free as the birds that cleave the air or sing on the branches,–free as the sunshine that gladdens the earth,–free as the winds that sweep over sea and land,–free at his birth,– free during his whole life,—free to-day, at this hour and this moment.

The Massachusetts Bill of Rights declares that all men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and inalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their liberties.

The example of the Revolutionary Fathers, in resisting British oppression, and throwing the tea overboard in Boston harbor, rather than submit to a three penny tax, is a most significant one to us, when man is likely to be deprived of his God-given liberty.

Among the incidents of that seven years’ struggle for liberty, and to which the page of impartial history bears record, is the fact that the first martyr in the attack on residents, was a colored man, Crispus Attucks by name, who feel in State street on the 5th of March, 1770. In that conflict, as also in

the war of 1812, colored Americans were devoted and gallant worshippers at Freedom’s shrine; and over the entire the country, and pre-eminently at New Orleans, they were warranted in believing that when the victory was achieved, they, as all who had fought shoulder to shoulder, would be invited to the banquet. But, lo! the white man’s banquet has been held, and loud peals to liberty have reached the sky above; but the colored man’s share has been to stand outside, and wait for the crumbs that fell from Liberty’s festive board. And to cap the climax, at this advanced hour of the nation’s prosperity, and thespread over all Christendom of a sentiment of liberty, fraternity and equality, the colored man, woman and child, bond and nominally free, are hunted like partridges on the mountain, if their hearts dare aspire for freedom.

The American people glory in the struggle of 1776, and the names of those who made bloody resistance to tyranny. The battle-cry of Patrick Henry of Virginia—‘Give me Liberty or give me Death!’— and that of General Warren, ‘My Sons, scorn to be Slaves,’ have become immortalized, and we are proud in not being an exception to that inspiration. It warms our hearts, and will nerve our right arms, to do all and suffer all for liberty.

The laudation and assistance volunteered by the United States to the Poles, and Greeks, and South Americans, in their struggles for freedom—the recent manifestations of sympathy with the Blouses of Paris, the oppressed of Italy, and with Kossuth and his band of noble Hungarians, are so many incentives to the victims of Republican American despotism, to manfully assert their independence, and, martyr-like, die freemen rather than live slaves; confirming, also, our pre-determined resolution to abide the issue made with us by the slave power—counting our lives not worth preserving at the expense of our liberties.

In connection with what has been previously adopted, the Committee would submit the following Preamble and Resolutions:–

Whereas, the Fugitive Slave Bill is unconstitutional, and in direct conflict with the higher law enjoined by our Savior, ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them;’

Whereas, from time immemorial, unrighteous enactments have been nullified by all who feared God rather than man; by Moses, the deliverer of Israel against wicked Pharaoh, and Daniel, who welcomed incarceration in a den of lions, rather than perjure his own soul in obedience to the tyrant’s mandate;

Whereas, St. Paul expressly declares that he who will not provide for his own household, is an infidel, having denied the faith;

Whereas, the history of nations attests numerous instances where the gallows, stake and gibbet have been welcomed, when security of life and limb might have been purchased by obedience to inhuman statutes;

Whereas, thousands in the land, from every class and profession in life, without exception, are eagerly registering their vows to oppose this infamous enactment, at whatever cost of money, reputation or life;

Whereas, sustained as we are by examples of Mosaic and Christian practice, and from the history of civil society from the earliest ages; encouraged by the voices of our brethren from the East

and the West, from the North, and even the tyrant’s domain, the bloody South, (where many hearts beat true for freedom;) but above all, and independent of any suggestions, counsels or examples, guided by our own promptings for freedom of ourselves and families, (by which we mean, of course, all those in any way exposed to danger from the slave power,) and believing that ‘Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God,’ we are now

Resolved, to organize a League of Freedom, composed of all those who are ready to resist the law, [?] and protect the slave, at every hazard, and who remember that

‘Whether on the scaffold high, Or in the battle’s van,

The fittest place where man can die, Is where he dies for man.’

Resolved, That in view of the imminent danger, present and looked for, we caution every colored man, woman and child, to be careful in their walks through the highways and byways of the city, by day, and doubly so, if out at night, as to where they go—how they go—and whom they go with; to be guarded on side, off side, and all sides; as watchful as Argus with his hundred eyes, and as executive [?] as [?] with so many hands; [?] by any one, to make the air resound with the signal-word, and as they would rid themselves of any wild beast, be prompt in their hour of peril.

Resolved, That any Commissioner who would deliver up a fugitive slave to a Southern highwayman, under this infamous and unconstitutional law, would have delivered up Jesus Christ to his persecutors for one third of the price that Judas Iscariot did.

Resolved, That in the event of any Commissioner of Massachusetts being applied to for remanding a fugitive, we trust he will emulate the example of Judge Harrington, of Vermont, and ‘be satisfied with nothing of a bill of sale from the Almighty.’

Resolved, That though we learn that bribes have already been offered to our Judiciary to forestall their influence against the panting fugitive, we would not attempt any other offset, that to remind said officers that

‘Man is more than Constitutions; better rot beneath The sod,

Than be true to Church and State, while we are doubly false to God;’

That should he, in the emergency, obey God rather than the devil, by letting the oppressed go free, he will have done his part in wiping out from the escutcheon of Massachusetts inflicted by Daniel Webster in promoting, and Samuel A. Eliot in voting for, this Heaven-defying law.

Resolved, That though we gratefully acknowledge that the mane of the British Lion affords a nestlingplace to our brethren in danger from the claws of the American Eagle, we would, nevertheless, counsel against their leaving the soil of their birth, consecrated by their tears, toils and perils, but yet to be rendered, truly, ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ The ties of consanguinity bid all remain, who would lend a helping hand to the millions now in bonds, But, at all events, if the soil of

Bunker Hill, Concord and Lexington is the last bulwark of liberty, we can nowhere fill more honorable graves.

Resolved, That we do earnestly express the hope that the citizens of Boston will rally in Faneuil Hall, and send forth, in the ear of all Christendom, their opinion of the infamous Fugitive Salve Bill, and of their intention to disobey its decrees. Their voice, uttered in the Cradle of Liberty, will assure us, as nothing else can, whether they are to be reckoned the side of liberty or slavery—whether they will vouchsafe to us their aid, or will assist the man-thief in hurling us and our little ones into interminable bondage.

Resolved, That this meeting would invite the clergymen of this city and vicinity to dedicate a day, or part thereof, to presenting their people, by prayer and sermon, their Christian duty towards the flying fugitive, and also in acceding to the requisitions of this atrocious Bill.

Resolved, That as in union is strength, and in this crisis, a combination of power is all-important, this meeting recommend the calling of New England Convention of the friends of Liberty, to operate against the Fugitive Law, and to devise ways and means for consolidation their resources here on the soil.

Resolved, That the doings of this and the preceding meeting be published for wide circulation.

The report was accepted, and the resolutions adopted, by a unanimous vote.

JOHN T. HILTON, in an eloquent and earnest speech, advocated the resolutions, remarking that twenty-five years ago he eulogized, as the greatest talent in the country, Daniel Webster, for his efforts on Plymouth Rock on the slavery question, and he regretted exceedingly that that talent should be used in favor of the odious bill. He was no longer to be trusted by the friends of liberty, for he had done more evil and committed more sin, than a thousand such men as the late Professor Webster ever did. The speaker concluded his remarks, which were listened to with marked attention, by saying that when his services should be wanted in defence of their rights, he would no greater office than to lead them on to battle and to victory.

JOSHUA B. SMITH hoped no one in that meeting would preach peace, for, as Patrick Henry said, ‘There is no peace.’ He narrated with much feeling the increased consternation of his much-loved friend—a fugitive slave. Since the passage of this infernal bill, a near relative of his claimant had been repeatedly seen skulking around his place of business, evidently anticipating the hour successful seizure, but he had done his utmost to dispel the agitation of his friend, bidding him at the outset show himself a man. If liberty is not worth fighting for, it is not worth having. He advised every fugitive to arm himself with a revolver—if he could not buy one otherwise, to sell his coat for that purpose. As for himself, and he thus exhorted others, he should be kind and courteous to all, even the slave-dealer, until the moment of an attack upon his liberty. He would not be taken ALIVE, but upon the slave-catcher’s head be the consequences. When he could not live here in Boston, a FREEMAN, in the language of Socrates, ‘He had lived long enough.’ Mr. Smith, in conclusion, made a demonstration of one mode of defence, which those who best know him say would be exemplified to the hilt.

ROBERT JOHNSON proclaimed that the meeting was largely composed of ACTORS, and not speakers merely; they were men of over-alls-men of the wharf—those who could do heavy work in the hour of difficulty. He administered a timely caution to the women, who, in pursuit of washing and other

work, visited the hotels and boarding-houses, that they should be on the constant look-out for the Southern slave-catcher or the Northern accessory, and as they valued their liberty, be prepared for any emergency. [This word to the wise women and others was greeted with lively demonstrations; some remarking that spirit exhibited by the slave women, some years since, in a slave rescue from the Supreme Court, was yet alive and ready for action.] He would have it a well understood point in our creed of vigilance, in no case to be ourselves the aggressors; in this it was all-important to be cautious; we will not go to the depots or elsewhere after the slave-hunter, but when he rushes upon our buckler—kill him.

DR. A. E. MANN spoke of the present state of affairs as affecting us all, white men as well as colored, and detailed many liabilities to which the Fugitive Slave Bill exposed both. He was opposed to war and the spirit of war, but the existing crisis was one that superseded the ordinary scruples;

‘Though space and law the STAG we lend Ere hound we slip or bow we bend Who cares HOW, WHERE or WHEN, The prowling Fox is trapped or slain?’

R.B. ROGERS would have the fugitive and his friends remember that it was with the United States Government they were to contend, and the their position in resisting this obnoxious law was that of rebels—a name, however, which he did not hesitate to accept, if loyalty to Constitution made him false to humanity. He urged the colored people to strive to secure the moral strength of the community as a potent lever for their enlargement, but would nevertheless assure them, that in the even being forced upon them of a personal contest for Liberty, God was their helper.

MR. GARRISON, though a non-resistant himself, determined, with the help of God, to live and die such, would yet call upon all to be consistent to their own principles, reminding them that WILLIAM TELL and GEORGE WASHINGTON were among the glorious names in the world’s annals of patriotic devotion at the shrine of Liberty; but, after all, the fugitives in this city and elsewhere would be more indebted to the moral power of public sentiment than to any display of physical resistance. In appreciation of the resolution, invoking the religious sentiment in behalf of the poor fugitive, he would submit an address to the clergy. Its reading was called for, and produced a marked sensation on the meeting, and, on motion, was unanimously incorporated with the minutes:–


We, the trembling, proscribed and hunted fugitives from chattel slavery,–now scattered through the various towns and villages of Massachusetts, and momentarily liable to be seized by the strong arm of government, and hurried back to stripes, torture, and bondage, ‘one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,’—most humbly, importunately, and by the mercies of Christ, implore you, at this distressing crisis, to lift up your voices like a trumpet against the Fugitive Slave Bill, recently adopted by Congress, and designed for our sure and immediate re-enslavement.

You claim, in a special sense, to be witnesses to God—the ambassadors of Him who came to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and opening of the prison to them that are

bound. As you would be clear of the blood of all men, it is for you to give to the down-trodden and the oppressed your deepest sympathies, and to hold up to reprobation those who ‘frame mischief by a law.’ It is for you to declare the supremacy of the eternal law of God over all human enactments, whether men will hear or forbear.

After years of unrequited labor, of enforced depredation, of unutterable and inconceivable misery, we have succeeded in making our escape from the modern house of bondage, and are now attempting to lead quiet and peaceable lives in this Commonwealth, and by expanding our faculties and cultivating our moral nature, to ‘glorify God in our bodies and spirits, which are his.’ By the recent law of Congress, it is made a highly criminal act to shelter us from the slave-hunter, or to refuse to participate in our capture, at the command of the appointed Commissioners.

Now, therefore, by the solemn injunction of a Christian apostle, ‘Remember them that are in bonds as bound with them,’ we implore you, from your pulpits, to denounce this iniquitous law!

By the command of Christ, ‘Whatsoever you would that should do to you, do ye even so to them,’ denounce the law!

By all the horrors and iniquities compressed into that system of slavery, which Wesley has just styled ‘the sum of all villanies,’ denounce the law!

By the cherished memories of Pilgrim Fathers and Revolutionary Sires, denounce the law!

By your warm approval of your country’s Declaration of Independence, denounce the law!

By your belief in the scriptural affirmation, that by one God we are all created, and that he ‘hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth,’ denounce the law!

By all the woes and warnings pronounced by the prophets against those who refuse to hide the outcasts and bewray him that wandereth—who decree unrighteous decrees, and write grievousness which they have proscribed, to turn aside the need from judgment—denounce the law!

Thus will you exalt the Christian religion, oppose the mightiest obstacle that stands in the way of human redemption, exert such a moral influence that shall break the rod of the oppressor, secure for yourselves the blessings of those who are ready to perish, and hear the thrilling declaration in the great day of judgment, ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye did it unto me.’

Mr. Garrison also read an extract from Rev. Henry Ward Beecher’s last tribute for the fugitive, pledging himself, in a characteristic manner, to succor and defend him at every conceivable sacrifice. The applause which this demonstration received would have convinced its noble-hearted author that his profound aid had not fallen upon ungrateful souls;–many prayers ascended to the fugitives’ God, for blessings upon him who would thus commit himself unreservedly for the victims of American Slavery.

FATHER HENSON would tell our oppressors that in condemning resistance of the part of the colored people, they were denouncing the examples of WASHINGTON and JEFFERSON, and all Martyrs of Liberty. He concurred with Mr. Garrison and others in reliance upon moral power, but the meeting well understood that, in a crisis for Liberty or Death the speaker would not be quietly led like a lamb to the slaughter.

CHARLES LIST, Esq., was glad that the fugitives were prepared to defend themselves, and that they solicited a Faneuil Hall meeting of Boston citizens where they may learn whether their lives and liberties can be secured in the land of the Pilgrim Fathers, or whether men-catchers may make hunting- grounds of the streets of Boston, driving them, at the approach of an inclement season, to seek, in a foreign land, the safety and refuge from oppression which they cannot find here at home.

Wm. G. ALLEN being called upon, declined in favor of C.C. BRIGGS, of Vermont, the fugitive’s friend, Mr. B. responded in thoughts that breathed and words that burned for Liberty; testifying to his pride in being a son of the Green Mountain State, where the sentiments of the people had rendered unnecessary any law relative to slavery. He would yield to no man in efforts to befriend and protect the victim of this inhuman law; and though he would caution all against any injudicious movements by way of resistance, yet he could not but express the opinion, that those who would not defend, to the death, their wives, sons and families from the slave hunter, were totally unworthy of a position in civil society.

REV. ELIJAH GRISSON urged calling upon the Mayor and police authorities of Boston for[?] [This was generally opposed, knowing that the city officers were not required by the law to arrest the fugitive; and believing that the police were not at all ambitious of hunting slaves, the appeal was rejected by an overwhelming vote.]

CHARLES LENOX REMOND—having received word of the meeting at his home in Salem, left in express haste to be present, and though at a late hour, in obedience to a hearty call, gave vent to one of his best efforts; his zeal to reach the meeting and his highly inspiring eloquence were loudly and gratefully appreciated. He alluded to the fact the inhuman provisions of the Slave Bill made all colored persons fugitives, imposing on them the necessity of unceasing vigilance. Numbers are nothing in a good cause:

‘Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.’

The idea of leaving our homes and firesides was in every sense a mistaken one; the Old Bay State should be our Canada. Boston is the Thermopylae of the anti-slavery cause. Let us be ready in the trial to ensure its analogy with that classic spot rendered so illustrious by Leonidas and his Spartan Band, so like the more modern but no less significant—Bunker Hill. The history of our country’s struggles for Liberty had never been disgraced by a colored Arnold; if then we have not proved traitors to the white man, in God’s name shall we not prove true to ourselves! He believed that the Fugitive Slave Law had been adopted in great part at the instance of the handmaid of slavery, the Colonization Society, in the wicked hope that the fear of being re-captured into bondage would move the colored man to emigrate to Liberia. But this feature only made the whole more damnable and was to be opposed at all and every point. After rebuking the colored people for lack of anti-slavery character, he declared that he would not yield to any institution or individual that would abridge his liberties or his efforts for the fugitive, and was happy in believing that the colored citizens of Boston would do their whole duty and defend themselves.

DR. BOWDITCH [ed. Note: Henry Ingersoll Bowditch] moved a general circulation among the masses of the address to the clergy.

The meeting was further addressed by Messrs. SPEAR, PIERCE, PICKETT, and others.

On motion, the resolutions of the Committee were adopted by acclamation, and ordered to be published.

After a hymn of Liberty, the gathering separated, mutually pledging, as did Hannibal, ‘Eternal Hostility to Slavery.’

William C. Nell, Secretary

The Liberator, 10/11/1850, p. 2


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