In 1779 the delegates of the people of Massachusetts gathered together in a Constitutional Convention. Their object was to draft a Constitution to replace the existing royal Charter of 1691 with one suitable for a free people.
A committee was appointed to draft it and gave the task to one man, John Adams. He was the most qualified, for he had written an essay on government and had also been a member of the drafting committee for the Declaration of Independence.
While the Massachusetts Constitution had a purpose different from the Declaration of Independence it parallels it in one respect: the first part of the Massachusetts Constitution contains a declaration of rights. The first article of that declaration reads:
Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
Article 1 entails and recognizes the rights of each individual inhabitant of Massachusetts. The significance of the location of this article is that everything that is written in the Constitution subsequently is limited by it. In particular, no law, no government action, no judgment, and no judicial or administrative process should be enacted, taken, passed or followed if it violated those rights.
Adams and Jefferson, being lawyers, knew exactly what they were doing when they placed their rights statements in the forefront of their documents: each knew that his statement, so placed, entailed and recognized the rights of each individual inhabitant of Massachusetts and the United States, respectively, and should constrain government to act accordingly.
John Adams’s draft was approved by the Constitutional Convention with several changes. It was then submitted to the people of Massachusetts who approved it in town meetings and the Constitution was ratified on June 15, 1780.
In 1781 a woman held in Sheffield as a slave, Mum Bett, hearing the new Constitution read and discussed, concluded that her enslavement was now wrong in law and brought suit to end it under Article 1. In court, Thomas Sedgwick, her attorney, who had been a representative at the Constitutional Convention, said that the Constitution ended slavery and the jury agreed. Mum Bett and another slave were freed.
In 1783, another case, in which a man, Quock Walker, was also seeking freedom from slavery, reached the Supreme Judicial Court. There, the Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice William Cushing, also a representative at the Constitutional Convention, in his address to the jury, said:
“…our Constitution of Government, by which the People of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal — and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property — and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution…”
Again, the jury agreed. Quock Walker was freed and won the case.
In June 1788 the United States Constitution was ratified.
In 1791 the Bill of Rights was ratified. It was an afterthought, placed at the end of the Constitution as amendments. This location guaranteed that the rights described therein would be subject to the decisions of Congress and could be breachable at will by the legislature and the executive with the judiciary gazing on.
In November 1787, on first seeing a copy of the United States Constitution, John Adams wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, asking:
“What think you of a Declaration of Rights? Should not such a thing have preceded the model”
By 1790 there was no record of anyone enslaved in Massachusetts.