Remarkable ALS, one page, 7.75 x 10, May 1, 1787. Letter to Philip Mazzei, in full: "Your favour of Feb. 24. I recd., but this moment.—The Mass. Law in question obliged Masters of Vessels, before they landed a Passenger to give Bonds, to maintain him in Case he came to want. It was intended to indemnify Parishes, or rather Towns, against the Maintenance of Paupers.—This Law turned the Tide of Emigration from Ireland to Philadelphia.—It was early in this Century I believe, but I am not able to ascertain the Date of it. There was an early Law too which obliged Masters, who manumitted Negroes to maintain them in Case they came to want, upon the same Principle. We have now no new Law that I know of, but ever since I can remember, every Negro who had the Courage to bring an action for his Liberty recovered it. Our juries would never declare Negroes Slaves by their Verdict. There is some new law lately passed which gives the Writ de Homine Replegiando, but I know not the Particulars. I know nothing of W. Penns dying in the Fleet Prison. I can be of very little service to you, in the work you are upon, for I have no American books to resort to but such as you possess and Memory is a very fallacious Guide." Retains the integral address leaf addressed in another hand to Mazzei, care of Thomas Jefferson, "Monsieur Phillip Mazzai, chez Monsieur Jefferson, Ambassadeur des Etats Unis de L'Americaine, a Paris." In fine condition, with light toning to the right side, and seal-related paper loss to the left edge affecting no text.
The recipient, Philip Mazzei, was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and had been engaged as a vintner at Colle near Monticello at the beginning of the American Revolution; he also acted as an agent to purchase arms for Virginia during the war. At the time of this letter, Mazzei was in Paris and working on his monumental ‘Recherches historiques et politiques sur les Etats-Unis de l'Amerique Septentrionale [Historical and Political Research on the United States of North America],’ an early and influential political history of the Revolution. In this letter, Adams responds to his inquiries concerning New England’s immigration and slavery laws of the 18th century; he had also asked whether it was true that the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, had died in Fleet Prison.
Under American poor laws, taxpayers were generally responsible for supporting indigent people among the free population. This became burdensome in certain states, as slaveholders would free their slaves once they became too old or feeble to work. The Massachusetts law mentioned here was passed in 1703 and required an owner to post a £50 bond with the municipal government in order to manumit a slave, so that he or she could be supported in case of want. Similarly, masters of incoming vessels had to post bond for any immigrant passengers so that their support would not fall onto the shoulders of Massachusetts’ townspeople.
Perhaps most interesting is Adams’s observation on the success of slaves in the commonwealth’s courts. In some cases, individual slaves brought lawsuits against their owners—often on the basis of a contractual agreement, a claim of white or Native American parentage, or an assertion of their natural right to freedom—and they frequently won. These types of lawsuits increased as the American Revolution came to an end, and slavery was legally abolished by the courts of Massachusetts in the 1781 Quock Walker case. Boasting extraordinary content on the early history of the nation, this is a remarkable letter penned by Adams during a foundational postwar period.
Terms and abbreviations used in our descriptions.