People of the Revolution - Free African-American Soldier and Mason
From Georgia to New England, the Revolution’s ideology of independence swept through the African-American community. The promise of liberty, one of the highest ideals of the American Revolution, became an obvious beacon of hope to America’s slaves. In pursuit of freedom, many slaves either joined the Continental Army, or fled to the British lines. These individuals hoped that their service during the war might lead to their eventual freedom, and in a few cases, this happened. For Prince Hall of Massachusetts, however, freedom was not a privilege to be earned through military service; freedom was a right to be demanded by direct political action. As much as anyone in America, Prince Hall recognized the glaring contradiction between the ideals of the Revolution and the continued practice of slavery. To him, if the Revolution were to live up to its ideals, slavery and racial discrimination had to end. As a staunch defender of the Revolution’s promise of liberty, Prince Hall emerged from the war years as one of the nation’s earliest and most articulate abolitionists and civil rights leaders.
Born in Barbados in 1735, Prince spent his childhood in the sugar plantations of the British West Indies. A slave’s life expectancy and working conditions were not as harsh on Barbados as on most Caribbean sugar islands. Prince had already grown into a strong young man of seventeen when he moved to Boston as a slave belonging to William Hall. Prince began learning the leather tanning trade. In 1756, he fathered a son, Primus Hall, whose mother, Delia, was a servant in another household. A month after his birth, Primus was given to Ezra Trask of Danvers, Connecticut, who raised the boy to be a shoemaker. In 1762, Prince joined the Congregational Church as a full communicant, and shortly after married Sarah Ritchie, a slave. A month after the Boston Massacre in 1770, William Hall presented Prince with his certificate of manumission, making the Barbadian-born slave a free man. The following summer, having already buried his first wife Sarah, Prince married Flora Gibbs, a free African-American woman from Gloucester, Massachusetts.
During the early 1770s, Boston’s Free Black community petitioned the General Court of the colony on five occasions to end slavery. The assembly acted on none of the proposals, but the effort promoted solidarity among Boston’s abolitionists. In 1773, James Swan, a Son of Liberty involved in the Boston Tea Party, summed up the position of these abolitionists in a printed article. Swan contended that “no country can be called free where there is one slave.” No evidence survives to link Prince Hall with these attempts to connect the Revolution’s ideals with an emancipation of the slaves. Yet, as a Free Black living in Boston in 1773-1774, he was unquestionably aware of the arguments being made.
When the Revolutionary crisis in Boston called upon free men to stand against British tyranny, Prince Hall joined the ranks of the Patriots. The myth survives that Prince participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The military records for 1775, however, show six Prince Halls in the army and navy, and it is impossible to know which of these men was William Hall’s former slave. Whether Prince fought as a soldier or not, his major contribution would come in politics, not on the battlefield. On March 6, 1775, six weeks before the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Prince Hall and fourteen other free Blacks joined a lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons in Boston. Later, they were granted a temporary permit to meet as a lodge by the Society of Masons, and the lodge provided a convenient structure around which to organize the abolitionist movement. Prince, however, later claimed that his desire to join derived solely from “something in it Divine and Noble,” which “Diffuses Universal love to all Mankind.” These two desires were, however, linked by the common sentiment which held that all men, whether of African or European ancestry, were equal. Prince quickly became a leader in the movement, and the “Master of the African Lodge No. 1.”
On January 13, 1777, the African Lodge submitted to the General Court of Massachusetts a petition calling for the end of slavery. The actual document was in fact a duplicate of the May 25, 1774 petition submitted to and rejected by then-British Governor General Thomas Gage. The masons revised several lines to reflect the petition’s submission during the second year of the Revolutionary War, but otherwise the words remained identical. The real difference between the 1774 and 1777 petitions was not in the words, but in the intended audience. In 1774, the petitioners faced a hostile British Governor, charged with the responsibility of putting down a rebellion. In 1777, the masons petitioned a Revolutionary assembly, dedicated to liberty and freedom, and currently engaged in a struggle to achieve those ideals. The document was thus transformed from a radical demand to a request that the Revolutionary leaders act on their stated principles.
The 1777 petition claimed for African-Americans “a Natural and unaliable [inalienable] Right” to freedom, “Bestowed equalley on all menkind.” The words of the Declaration of Independence thus become a key element in the abolitionist claim. The assertion of a God-given right to freedom meant that slavery existed only as “a violation of Laws of Nature and of Nations and in defiance of all tender feelings of humanity.” Yet the most poignant sentences of the petition are those which connect the Revolution’s ideals to the idea of emancipation. The petitioners wrote that “It have Never Bin [been] Consirdered [considered] that Every Principle from which America has Acted in the C[o]urs[e] of their unhappy Dif[fliculties with Great Briton Pleads Stronger than A thousand arguments in favours of your petitioners.” During the 1760s and 1770s, many revolutionaries concluded that British policies amounted to a plot against the colonists to reduce them to slavery. That language now returned, to be used against those of would attempt to limit the Revolution and deny liberty and equal treatment to all people. The number of manumissions in Massachusetts rose quickly after the adoption of the commonwealth’s new, more radical constitution of 1780. Many enslaved Americans interpreted the constitution as ending their bondage altogether, and simply deserted their masters. Thanks in no small part to the actions of Prince Hall and the Society of Masons, slavery withered away quickly in Massachusetts.
After the war, Prince continued to fight for civil rights and for a permanent charter for the African Lodge No. 1. Prince never advocated revolt against the government, however. When such an opportunity arose in 1786 during Daniel Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts, Prince sided with the government. In a letter to Governor Bowdoin, Prince condemned “any plot of conspiracies against the state where we dwell,” and offered the services of the African-American community to help put down the rebellion. In 1787, his masonic lodge received its charter, and was renumbered 459, with Prince officially recognized as Master. In 1787, Prince also entertained but apparently rejected the idea of a mass exodus of ex-slaves to Africa, five years before the exiled Black Loyalists in Canada emigrated to Sierra Leone. In the same year, Prince petitioned the General Court to grant equal public education to blacks as well as whites, on the grounds that each paid their required taxes to the government. His petition was ignored.
In 1788, after an outrageous incident in which a ship captain promised work aboard his vessel to three free African-American men, and then sold the men into slavery, Prince lashed out at the slave trade. His petition, along with pressure from the Boston Quakers and others finally brought action by the Massachusetts assembly. On March 26, 1788, the General Court passed an act “to prevent the Slave Trade, and for granting Relief to the Families of such unhappy Persons as may be Kidnapped or decoyed away from this Commonwealth.” Through the 1790s and early 1800s, Prince continued to fight for equal public education for Free Blacks, and in 1798, established his own school for African-American children. In October 1807, at the age of seventy-two, Prince Hall died. He missed the formal ending of the slave trade forever on January 1, 1808 by two months. To celebrate the event, two hundred African-Americans marched through Boston to the African Meeting House, and held a service of thanksgiving.
Primary Source Documents: Prince Hall
Petition of Lancaster Hill, Peter Bess, Brister Slensler, Prince Hall, et. al., to “the Honourable Counsel & House of Representatives for the State of Massachusetts Bay in General Court assembled, January 13, 1777: (Taken from Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, (New York: The Citadel Press, 1951), volume I, 9-10.)
The petition of A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of slavery in the Bowels of a free & Christian Country Humbly sheweth that your Petitioners apprehend that they have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unaliable Right to that freedom which the Gr[e]at Parent of the Unavers [Universe] hath Bestowed equalley on all menkind and which they have Never forfeited by any Compact or agreement whatever–but that wher[e] Unjustly Dragged by the hand of cruel Power from their De[a]est friends and sum of them Even torn from the Embraces of their tender Parents–from A populous Pleasant and plentiful country and in violation of Laws of Nature and of Nations and in defiance of all tender feelings of humanity Brough[t] hear Either to Be sold Like Beasts of Burthen & Like them Condemn[e]d to Slavery for Life–Among A People Profes[s]ing the mild Religion of Jesus A People Not Insensible of the Secrets of Rational Being Nor without spirit to Resent the unjust endeavors of others to Reduce them to a state of Bondage and Subjection your honour Need not be informed that A Live of Slavery Like that of your petitioners Deprived of every social privilege of Every thing Requisit[e] to Render Life Tollerlable is far worse than Nonexistence.
[In imitate]ion of the Lawdable Example of the Good People of these States your petitioners have Long and Patiently waited the Ev[e]nt of petition after petition By them presented to the Legislative Body of this state and cannot but with Grief Reflect that their Suc[c]ess hath be but too similar they Cannot but express their Astonishment that It have Never Bin [Been] Consirdered [Considered] that Every Principle from which America has Acted in the C[o]urs[e] of their unhappy Dif[f]iculties with Great Briton Pleads Stronger than A thousand arguments in favours of your petitioners they ther[e]for[e] humble Beseech your honours to give this peti[ti]on its due weight & consideration & cause an act of the Legislatur[e] to be past Wher[e]by they may be Restored to the Enjoyments of that which is the Naturel Right of all men–and their Children who [were] Born in this Land of Liberty may not be heald [held] as Slaves after they ar[r]ive at the age of twenty one years so may the Inhabitance of this Stats [State] No longer chargeable with the inconsistancey of acting themselves the part which they condemn and oppose in others Be prospered in their present Glorious struggle for Liberty and have those Blessing to them, &c.
Prince Hall’s response to a December 1782 Boston newspaper article about the Feast of St. John. The article sarcastically mis-identified Hall’s mason lodge as “St. Blacks Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons.” The proper identification for Prince Hall’s lodge was “African Lodge No. 1, dedicated to St. John.” (Taken from. Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.)
. . . with due submission to the public, our title is not St. Black’s Lodge; neither do we aspire after high titles. But our only desire is that the Great Architect of the Universe would diffuse in our hearts the true spirit of Masonry, which is love to God and universal love to all mankind. These I humbly conceive to be the two grand pillars of Masonry. Instead of a splendid entertainment [at the Feast of St. John], we had an agreeable one in brotherly love. . .
Master of African Lodge No. 1,
Dedicated to St. John
Letter of Prince Hall to Governor Bowdoin, November 1786, in response to the Governor’s call for volunteers to put down the rebellion of Daniel Shays in western Massachusetts: (Taken from Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.)
We [masons], by the Providence of God, are members of a fraternity that not only enjoins upon us to be peaceable subjects to the civil powers where we reside, but it also forbids our having concern in any plot of conspiracies against the state where we dwell; and as it is the unhappy lot of this state at the present date, and as the meanest of its members must feel that want of a lawful and good government, and as we have been protected for many years under this once happy Constitution, so we hope, by the blessing of God, we may long enjoy that blessing; therefore, we, though unworthy members of this Commonwealth, are willing to help and support, as far as our weak and feeble abilities may become necessary in this time of trouble and confusion, as you in your wisdom shall direct us. That we may, under just and lawful authority, live peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty, is the hearty wish of your humble servants, the members of the African Lodge. . .
Prince Hall’s petition to the Massachusetts State Legislature for equal educational rights, October 17, 1787: (Taken from Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, (New York: The Citadel Press, 1951), volume I, 19-20.)
To the Honourable the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bay, in General Court assembled.
The petition of a great number of blacks, freemen of this Commonwealth, humbly sheweth, that your petitioners are held in common with other freemen of this town and Commonwealth and have never been backward in paying our proportionate part of the burdens under which they have, or may labor under; and as we are willing to pay our equal part of these burdens, we are of the humble opinion that we have the right to enjoy the same privileges of free men. But that we do not will appear in many instances, and we beg leave to mention one out of many, and that is of the education of our children which now receive no benefit from the free schools in the town of Boston, which we think is a great grievance, as by wo[e]ful experience we now feel the want of a common education. We, therefore, must fear for our rising offspring to see them in ignorance in a land of gospel light when there is provision made for them as well as others and yet can’t enjoy them, and for not other reason can be given this they are black . . .
We therefore pray your Honors that you would in your wisdom some provision may be made for the education of our dear children. And in duty bound shall ever pray.
For Further Reading:
Sidney Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800 (1989).
William Pierson, Black Yankees (1988).
Phillip Foner, Blacks in the American Revolution (1976).
Image 01: Portrait of Prince Hall from the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, artist and date unknown.
Image 02: Title page from a 1764 freemasonry handbook by Laurence Dermott.
Image 03: “Shay’s Rebellion” from Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack, 1787, artist unknown.
All images are public domain and all are available through Wikimedia Commons.