February 6, 1861 was a Wednesday. As such, people were busy or at least trying to appear busy. In both Montgomery, Alabama, and Washington, D.C., the delegates at the conventions working respectively toward secession and reconciliation labored on procedural and house-keeping matters. The momentous business for both meetings was yet to come. Yet elsewhere on February 6, other events hearkened back to the past and toward the future.
Pointing to the past was a sermon published that day in Augusta, Georgia, by Joseph R. Wilson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Like the sermon of his fellow Presbyterian, Benjamin Morgan Palmer the previous November in New Orleans, Wilson mounted a religious defense of slavery. Unlike Palmer, who asserted that slaveholders were doing a Christian duty in caring for an inferior race, Joseph R. Wilson in essence argued since slavery was a legitimate institution in biblical times it was legitimate in their day as well. Wilson’s sermon was well received in Augusta and still exists today because a local editor was so taken with it, he solicited the clergyman to reprint it in his newspaper. The full text of the sermon can now be found on the Documenting the American South website of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Yet it was one of the last contemporaneous defenses of slavery, hearkening to the past.
Pointing to the future was an event little noticed in 1861. On February 6, 1861, a petition of 126 black men of Boston was presented to the Massachusetts legislature. African Americans in the city were following with great interest the Washington Convention and knew that Massachusetts had sent delegates to this meeting. They also knew that the meeting would likely propose explicit constitutional guarantees in defense of slavery. Yet the ire of these Bostonians was not directed at slavery per se. Instead, they were fearful that the Washington Convention would rob them of something that few black men enjoyed in 1861, the right to vote. Massachusetts, along with Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island (plus New York with property holding requirements) had black suffrage. The petitioners were concerned the Washington Convention would propose a constitutional amendment prohibiting any states from enfranchising black voters since it had appeared in early versions of the Crittenden Compromise. They demanded that Massachusetts legislature instruct the state’s delegates at the Willard Hotel gathering to oppose taking away their right to vote.
While the petition died in committee in the Massachusetts legislature, its very existence and further public agitation in Boston’s black community in defense or their suffrage rights shows that from its earliest days African Americans would not be passive in the looming conflict. Black Americans, including the slaves, would work toward their goals–most especially emancipation–throughout the Civil War. And their efforts would be an integral to achieving freedom for the slaves.