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From the Diary of Samuel Sewall 28 June 1689

Between 1688 and 1690, Samuel Sewall visited England. Had there been a phone book in his day, he might have visited everyone in it—and probably purchased something from every merchant in the yellow pages, too. Upon return to Boston in November 1689, he was hauling trunk after trunk of books, clothes, liquors, foodstuffs, hardware and myriad other items, some for personal use, some for resale.

Edmund Andros, Dominion of New England, Samuel Sewall

Edmund Andros as a Prisoner in Boston

Sewall’s travels involved more than business and pleasure, however. He is never out of touch with politics. While in England, Sewall tried to help his friend Increase Mather secure Massachusetts a Charter to replace the original. The conflicts involving the Dominion of New England and its impact on the daily lives and intellectual climate of the colonists weighed heavily upon Sewall.

His diary entry for 28 June 1689 reflects a heady mix of business, pleasure and politics. Sewall is in Cambridge, visiting the College and Catherine Hall, waxing gently on about its gardens and sundials and the little mill tucked in a grove of trees over by a good strong stream. We know where he ate: Saffron Walden, the saffron growing and trading centre. A merchant to the core, Sewall practically calculates his return on investment, noting that saffron roots can fetch “Ten Shillings a Bushel- about an Acre might yield an hundred pounds and more.”

By the end of the 28 June entry, Sewall’s mind is on politics: on the Glorious Revolution, the ouster of Edmund Andros from Boston, on the repudiation of the Dominion of New England. Over coffee, Sewall and Samuel Mather learned of the final days of the Dominion of New England. The two were “surpris’d with joy.”

Surrender_of_Sir_Edmund_Andros, Dominion of New England

Boston Demanded that Edmund Andros Surrender

On 27 June, Nathanial Byfield was licensed to publish his pamphlet, “An Account of the Late Revolutions in New England,” describing the Andros regime. The pamphlet was printed and distributed as rapidly as possible in London.

Byfield’s “Account” became a benchmark of historical perspective regarding the Dominion of New England and Edmund Andros’ regime. Sewall and Mather read that:

“Care was taken to load Preferments upon such Men as were strangers to, and haters of the People. . . . ; nor could a small Volume contain the Illegalities done by these Horse-Leeches in the two or three Years that they have been sucking of us;

“and what Laws they made it was as impossible for us to know, as dangerous for us to break. … It was now plainly affirmed … by some in open Council . . . that the people in New England were all Slaves. . . . Persons who did but peaceably object against the raising of Taxes without an Assembly, have been for it fined. . . . Without a Jury . . . some . . . have been kept in Imprisonment. . . .

“Because these things could not make us miserable fast enough, there was a notable Discovery made of . . . flaw in all our Titles to our Lands . . . and besides what Wrong hath been done in our Civil Concerns . . . the Churches everywhere have seen our Sacred Concerns apace going after them.”

Perhaps Sewall and Mather nodded in agreement with Byfield’s closing: “We commit our Enterprise unto the Blessing of Him, who hears the cry of the oppressed, and advise all our Neighbours, to joyn with us in prayers and all just actions, for the Defence of the Land.”


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King Phillip’s War temporarily revitalized commitment to the New England Confederation and, early on, put the pact to its greatest test. For roughly the first six months of King Phillip’s War, the Confederation provided organization to the war efforts but, as skirmishes grew smaller, more isolated, the impact of the Confederation diminished.

John Winthrop Signing the New England Confederation

Signing the New England Confederation

During the phase of the war in which tiny bands of soldiers engaged in impromptu, isolated battles, the colonies required less cooperation at the supervisory level. The benefits of the alliance faded though disuse. The New England Confederation collapsed ultimately in 1684, when British courts vacated Massachusetts’ corporate charter.

John Quincy Adams spoke about the New England Confederation on several occasions. He clearly revered the agreement. It did not escape Adam’s notice that the colonies not only came to their Confederation without the King’s approval, they did not even seek it. The King had failed them. The colonists were beginning to think that what they did was no longer any of the King’s business.

The New England Confederation grew organically from

Edward Winslow signed the New England Confederation

Edward Winslow signed the New England Confederation

American soil, seeded and shaped by forces and needs with which England was out of touch, and for which she could provide scant help. Noting that, John Quincy Adams tacked the New England Confederation on the family tree of colonial agreements extending from the Mayflower Compact to the US Constitution.

Go here for my article addressing John Quincy Adam’s take on the New England Confederation.


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From the Diary of Samuel Sewall 24 June 1700

June 24th was quite a day for Judge Samuel Sewall. Too many only recall his name in connection with the Salem Witch Trials. Sewall’s diary is packed full of essential and interesting colonial history.

Samuel Sewall, abolition, The Selling of Joseph, salem witch judge

Samuel Sewall, author, The Selling of Joseph

Within entries relating to 24 June, his diary addresses not only the ship Charles, John Quelch, and the Trial of the Pirates, but also his publication of the seminal American abolitionist tract, The Selling of Joseph, on 24 June 1700.

Sewall’s diary indicates that, following a funeral, his thoughts turned to the issue of slavery. “Having been long and much dissatisfied,” he writes,

“With the Trade of fetching Negros from Guinea; at last I had a strong Inclination to Write something about it; but it wore off. At last-reading [Paul Bayne’s commentary on the Ephesians] about servants, who mentions Blackamoors; I began to be uneasy that I had so long neglected doing any thing. When I was thus thinking, in came Brother Belknap to shew me a Petition he intended to present to the General Court for the freeing of a Negro and his wife, who were unjustly held in Bondage.

“And there is a Motion by a Boston Committee to get a Law that all Importers of Negros shall pay 40s per head, to discourage the bringing of them. And Mr. C. Mather resolves to publish a sheet to exhort Masters to labour their Conversion. Which makes me hope that I was call’d of God to Write this Apology for them; Let his Blessing accompany the same.”

The Selling of Joseph clearly reveals Sewall’s mounting abhorrence of the slave trade. Citing passages from the Bible, he states his case; in the subsequent section of the tract, judge Sewall raises, and answers, hypothetical objections to his verdict condemning the practice of slavery.

Answering the objections, he inadvertently attests the prejudices of his era. Sewall was enlightened relative to his time, bold enough to condemn slavery, but the answers to his objections betray him as, regrettably, still a racist. One could argue that, just perhaps, Sewall, after first offering Biblical proof of the evils of slavery, proceeded to offer more practical, secular proofs of those evils, adopting something of the contemptible thought processes of the day solely for the sake of exposing their weakness and refuting them. Unfortunately, the supposition rings hollow, as soon as Sewall notes, “they can never embody with us, and grow up into orderly Families, to the Peopling of the Land.”

Although he condemned slave holders and traders, he would rather not have Blacks in Boston. Although an abolitionist, he remained a segregationist.

Nevertheless, The Selling of Joseph represents an essential element in the study of the abolitionist movements on US soil.

Sewall’s tract was, in part, inspired by a slave, Adam, who was held by John Saffin, one of Sewall’s legal colleagues in Boston and, like Sewall, a respected merchant. Unlike Sewall, Saffin trafficked in slaves; particularly galling to Sewall, Saffin reneged on a deal to manumit Adam. Sewall and Saffin argued over the issue. Sewall criticized Saffin in private, but Saffin went public and issued his defense of slavery in his A Brief Candid Answer to a Late Printed Sheet Entitled, The Selling of Joseph in 1701. The “Sewall-Saffin Dialog” represents the roots of the antebellum slavery debates in America.

The Selling of Joseph gets right to its point. Here is an excerpt, reformatted for enhanced web readability, but with few further textual alterations.

Samuel Sewall, abolition, The Selling of Joseph, salem witch judge Illustration by Dore

Samuel Sewall, author, The Selling of Joseph. Illustration by Dore

FORASMUCH as Liberty is in real value next unto Life: None ought to part with it themselves, or deprive others of it, but upon most mature Consideration.

The Numerousness of Slaves at this day in the Province, and the Uneasiness of them under their Slavery, hath put many upon thinking whether the Foundation of it be firmly and well laid; so as to sustain the Vast Weight that is built upon it.
It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all other outward Comforts of Life.

GOD hath given the Earth [with all its Commodities] unto the Sons of Adam, Psal 115. 16. And hath made of One Blood, all Nations of Men, for to dwell on all the face of the Earth; and hath determined the Times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation: That they should seek the Lord. Forasmuch then as we are the Offspring of GOD &c. Act 17.26, 27, 29.

Now although the Title given by the last ADAM, doth infinitely better Mens Estates, respecting GOD and themselves; and grants them a most beneficial and inviolable Lease under the Broad Seal of Heaven, who were before only Tenants at Will: Yet through the Indulgence of GOD to our First Parents after the Fall, the outward Estate of all and every of the Children, remains the same, as to one another. So that Originally, and Naturally, there is no such thing as Slavery.

Joseph was rightfully no more a Slave to his Brethren, then they were to him: and they had no more Authority to Sell him, than they had to Slay him. And if they had nothing to do to Sell him; the Ishmaelites bargaining with them, and paying down Twenty pieces of Silver, could not make a Title. Neither could Potiphar have any better Interest in him than the Ishmaelites had. Gen. 37. 20, 27, 28.

For he that shall in this case plead Alteration of Property, seems to have forfeited a great part of his own claim to Humanity.

There is no proportion between Twenty Pieces of Silver, and LIBERTY. The Commodity it self is the Claimer. If Arabian Gold be imported in any quantities, most are afraid to meddle with it, though they might have it at easy rates; lest if it should have been wrongfully taken from the Owners, it should kindle a fire to the Consumption of their whole Estate.

’Tis pity there should be more Caution used in buying a Horse, or a little lifeless dust; than there is in purchasing Men and Women : Whenas they are the Offspring of GOD, and their Liberty is,

Auro pretiosior Omni.

And seeing GOD hath said, He that Stealeth a Man and Selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to Death. Exod. 12.16.

This Law being of Everlasting Equity, wherein Man Stealing is ranked amongst the most atrocious of Capital Crimes : What louder Cry can there be made of the Celebrated Warning,

Caveat Emptor !


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