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“The African Chief” Antislavery Poem by “Poet of the American Revolution” Sarah Morton, with John Hancock’s Great Address to Massachusetts Legislature
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That a free government founded in the natural equal rights of all the people, is within the reach of human ability, and to be prized as a principal support of national happiness…

That government may be considered as truly free, where all the people are, by the constitution and laws, upon the same rank of privilege, and have an equal security for their lives, liberties, and property. Where the laws do not create, but are calculated to prevent all exclusive rights to fame or wealth, and leave each citizen upon his own merit for the honours of his country, and upon his own honest exertions for the acquirement of property....” (p1/c4)

In his June 6 speech to the Massachusetts legislature, Governor John Hancock waxes eloquent about American liberties, wishing the same for the French people then embroiled in a violent revolution, and making recommendations on a variety of issues, including a law on divorce after the nasty Chickering case, and the payment of state debts not assumed by Congress.

This also contains the first publication of Sarah Apthorp Morton’s “The African Chief,” an antislavery elegy for an African leader slain in 1791 fighting for his freedom in St. Domingo; it was widely reprinted through the nineteenth century.

[ANTISLAVERY]. JOHN HANCOCK. Newspaper. Columbian Centinel, June 9, 1792. Boston: Benjamin Russell. 4 pp. (pp. 101-4).

Inventory #24833       ON HOLD

Excerpts from John Hancock’s Speech:

The manner in which this State was originally settled by our ancestors, has given us an opportunity to carry this principle into practice: And our great and unexampled success, has given us cause of gratitude to Him who prescribed the bounds of different nations, and has fully compensated us for all our toil, expense and trouble.

That such a situation as I have hinted at, may be in the possession of every nation on the earth, is the devout wish of every good man: And in this idea, our prayers cannot cease for a people, with whom we are nearly allied [The French], and whose generous assistance did much towards promoting the object of our wishes in the time of our distress.

The means most likely to continue our publick felicity, are the establishing, and executing such laws, as will tend to support the habits of truth, integrity, and every moral virtue; and by certain and adequate punishments, to prohibit all frauds, and every immorality and vice.... as I consider our University at Cambridge [Harvard University], as being the principal source of the learning and intelligence possessed by this community, I cannot but earnestly solicit you to give it your encouragement and support.

We live in a country that naturally excites the mind to enterprize; giving encouragement to industry, and to that spirit of commerce, which tends to commend a friendly entercourse amongst all the nations of the earth, to improve in the arts, and to render more valuable and important the vast variety of blessings which we possess.” (p1/c4)

In the last session of the late General Court, I was obliged, by a sense of duty, to object to a resolve passed by the two Branches, for a particular divorce... if the causes as recognized by law, do not comprehend all those for which a divorce ought to be allowed, you will make such provision, as may tend to give relief where it ought to be had.—I am obliged however, to observe, that this is a subject which ought to be treated with great caution; because indulgencies of this kind… are very liable to be abused, to the great injury of society.” (p1/c4-p2/c1)

“The African Chief” by Sarah Apthorp Morton (p2/c4)

See how the black ship cleaves the main,

      High bounding o’er the violet wave;

Remurm’ring with the groans of pain,

      Deep freighted with the princely Slave.


Did all the Gods of Afric sleep,

      Forgetful of their guardian love,

When the white traitors of the deep

      Betray’d him in the palmy grove!


A Chief of Gambia’s golden shore,

      Whose arm the band of Warriours led;

Perhaps the Lord of boundless power,

      By whom the foodless poor were fed.”


Stung by despair he fought the plain,

      To Heaven uprais’d his starting eye,

Claim’d Freedom from the crushing chain,

      Or mid the battle’s rage to die.


First of his race, he led the band,

      Guardless of dangers floating round,

’Till by his fierce avenging hand,

      Full many a despot stain’d the ground.”


If later deeds quick raptures raise,

      The boons by Belgia’s patriots won,

Paoli’s time-enduring praise,

      Or the still greater Washington.


If these command thy generous zeal,

      Who scorn’d a tyrant’s mad control,

For bleeding Gambia learn to feel,

      Whose Chieftain claim’d a kindred soul.


Let Sorrow bathe each blushing cheek,

      Bend piteous o’er the tortur’d Slave,

Whose wrongs Compassion cannot speak,

      Whose only refuge, is the grave.

Historical Background on the Divorce Question

On February 25, 1792, Governor John Hancock sent a message to the Massachusetts Senate, informing them of his veto of the resolution passed by both houses a few days earlier. The resolution was to dissolve the marriage of Dr. Daniel Chickering and Abigail Heard Hubbard Chickering (1770-1806) of Eliot, Maine. Hancock insisted that the legislature’s action was unconstitutional. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, written in large part by John Adams, gave authority to the Governor and Council to hear and determine all causes of marriage, divorce, and alimony “until the Legislature shall, by law make other provision.” But, in 1786, the legislature enacted a law that provided that “All Questions of divorce, and alimony shall be heard and tried by the Supreme Judicial Court in the Counties where the parties live.”

While the state’s law permitted divorce for adultery or impotence, the cause mentioned in the Chickering case (likely “extreme cruelty”) only allowed divorce “from bed and board,” in other words, without the ability to remarry. Hancock concluded his message, “If the Legislature possesses the authority to dissolve by a special act the bond of marriage, I am of opinion, that as the good order of, and different relations in, civil Society depend so much on that obligation, it ought to be done with more form, and solemnity than is practised in passing resolves.”

This issue also includes

       - An Act for regulating Processes in the Courts of the United States, and for providing Compensations for the Officers of the said Courts, and for Jurors and Witnesses, signed in type by George Washington on May 8, 1792 (p1/c1-4);

       - a report on the death of King Gustav III of Sweden, who had been shot two weeks earlier at a masquerade ball (p2/c1-2);

       - a letter from Earl Stanhope that the British House of Commons voted to end the slave trade at some point (which was done in 1807) (p2/c2-3);

       - a defense of Secretary of War Henry Knox (p2/c4-p3/c1);

       - a notice that President Washington had returned to Philadelphia from Mount Vernon (p3/c1);

       - a satirical poem about the French National Assembly published in British newspapers (p4/c1); and a variety of notices and advertisements.

Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton (1759-1846) was born in Boston, the daughter of a merchant and slave-trader. In 1781, she married attorney Perez Morton (1751-1837); they had at least six children. She began writing poetry at an early age, publishing under the pen name Philenia. She was well-known for her poetry about the virtues of freedom, and perhaps her best-known poem was “The African Chief,” appearing in this issue of the Columbian Centinel for the first time. Abolitionists frequently reprinted the poem in the nineteenth century. Morton’s 1790 book-length poem, Ouabi: or the Virtues of Nature; An Indian Tale in Four Cantos, was one of the first works to use Native American themes in American verse and focuses on an interracial romance on the Illinois frontier.

After her younger sister Frances (Fanny) Apthorp came to live with Sarah’s family in the 1780s, Perez Morton got Fanny pregnant. Her father confronted Morton, and Fanny committed suicide by an overdose of laudanum. Her uncle wrote The Power of Sympathy (1789), which many consider to be the first American novel, about the incident. Perez Morton went on to serve as speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1806 to 1808 and 1810 to 1811 and as Massachusetts Attorney General from 1810 to 1832. Her husband’s affair and sister’s suicide estranged Sarah from her husband, but they reconciled. She later had an affair with Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816).


Sarah Wentworth Morton, poet of the American Revolution, is remembered for the long, sentimental, narrative poems in which she considers the make-up of the new nation, inter-racial relationships and heroism, both male and female. In her own time she was renowned for her poetry about the virtues of freedom. Though too invested in the idea of submission to be a feminist, she had the status and role of women very much at heart….

Published in December 1790, Morton’s book length poem, Ouabi: or the Virtues of Nature; An Indian Tale in Four Cantos, was one of the first works to use Native American themes in American verse. Ouabi is a tale of interracial romance on the Illinois frontier that used native materials in an epic form. It tells of a love triangle …At the end of the poem Azakia chooses to die, an act that retains his dignity and frees Zisma and Celario to love one another without guilt. Although clearly influenced by romanticism, Morton’s depiction of Indian life is based on historical research and is especially indebted to the Letters of William Penn…

During her lifetime, Sarah Wentworth Morton’s fame rested on her advocacy of freedom. Perhaps her best known poem on that subject, which appeared in the June 9, 1792 issue of Columbian Centinel under the title “The African Chief.” It was widely reprinted, and frequently recited by abolitionists in the nineteenth century.

John Hancock (1737-1793) was a Boston merchant and leader of the colonial resistance movement. Born in Braintree, his paternal uncle, Thomas Hancock, adopted John after his father died in 1742. John Hancock graduated from Harvard College in 1754 and went to work for his uncle, from whom he learned the mercantile trade and was groomed for partnership. The Hancock family engaged in smuggling with the French West Indies in defiance of the Molasses Act. When his uncle died childless in 1764, John Hancock inherited the lucrative mercantile business and became one of the wealthiest men in New England. Named a Boston selectman in 1765, Hancock opposed the Stamp Act, and upon passage of the Townshend Duties in 1767, he resolved to prohibit British customs officials from setting foot on his ships. Hancock served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and, in 1774, he was elected president of the revolutionary Provincial Congress. He and Samuel Adams were the targets of General Gage’s projected campaign against Lexington and Concord in April 1775. During the war, Hancock served as President of the Continental Congress, 1775-1777, and in that capacity signed the Declaration of Independence in bold script on July 4, 1776.

After Shays’ Rebellion embroiled Massachusetts in civil unrest in 1786 and 1787, his support of the new Constitution was probably responsible for its ratification, by a narrow margin, by Massachusetts. Under a new Massachusetts constitution, he was overwhelmingly elected governor in 1780 and served until his resignation in January 1785. After Shays’ Rebellion confounded his successor James Bowdoin, Hancock returned to office as governor in 1787 and pardoned the rebels. He won reelection annually for the rest of his life.

Columbian Centinel (1790-1840) was a semi-weekly newspaper published in Boston by Benjamin Russell. It continued Russell and William Warden’s Massachusetts Centinel (1784-1790) and was the most influential newspaper in Massachusetts after the American Revolution. It was strongly Federalist in outlook and had the largest circulation in Boston until 1800. In 1828, Russell sold the Centinel to Joseph T. Adams and Thomas Hudson, who continued publishing it until 1840, when it merged with several other newspapers.

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