DORCHESTER FEMALE ANTI-SLAVERY SOCIETY
To the Legislature of the State of Massachusetts. The undersigned, women of Dorchester, in the County of Norfolk, respectfully pray you, immediately, to repeal all Laws in this State, which make any distinction among its Inhabitants on account of COLOUR
[Dorchester, Massachusetts]: . Quarto. 1p. handbill, with the above across the top with four columns of 211 names of women petitioning the legislature below. Expert repairs to separations at folds with losses to few letters in facsimile. Matted.
An extraordinary handbill by a female anti-slavery society protesting a Massachusetts's law against interracial marriage.
Although Massachusetts had abolished slavery in 1780, an anti-miscegenation statute remained on the books. By the 1830s, the state's abolitionists, led by William Lloyd Garrison, argued that the laws banning interracial marriage embodied the same racial prejudice at the root of slavery and they began a campaign to petition the state legislature to repeal that law. Concurrently, local female anti-slavery societies had begun organizing in various parts of New England and the northeast, setting up a confrontation between the male legislature and the female activists. In the Fall of 1838, Sarah Baker, the secretary of the newly-formed Dorchester Women's Anti-Slavery Society, drafted an anti-miscegenation petititon to the legislature "to repeal all Laws ... which make a distinction among its inhabitants on account of colour" (ie. the present handbill). Like other such local societies, Baker had closely followed a similar petition from the national American Anti-Slavery Society. Rushing to print and submit her chapter's petition in time for the start of the 1839 legislative session, she took the liberty of adding the names of Laura M. Spaulding and Sarah Sanford, who had not yet signed the petition but who had signed a similar petition the year prior. Among the most respected women of Dorchester, the latter being the wife of the Reverend David Sanford, Baker placed their names at the very top of the petititon. Two other similar petitions from other local Massachusetts's women's anti-slavery societies were submitted by the end of 1838, with over thirteen hundred white women affixing their names in support of interracial marriage. "Public uproar over their petitions forced the legislature to address these women. However, instead of addressing the issue of interracial marriage or race law, the judiciary committee heaped abuse on the women for daring to petition in the first place" (Moulton). Minott Thayer, a Senator from Braintree, took the "abuse" a step farther. Upon receiving a complaint from Reverend Sanford that his wife's name had been forged, Thayer accused Baker of fabricating the entire petition, and summoned her to appear for a witch-hunt-style interrogation before an investigative committee. Pressured by their husbands and public sentiment, other Dorchester women who had signed the petition recanted to disassociate themselves from the controversy. Baker would appear before the committee, with Wendell Phillips by her side, and though she admitted to her error in adding names, she refused to concede to Thayer's aggressive examination in which he attempted to have her admit not understanding the true meaning of the petition. Asserting in his printed report on the investigation that he did not believe there was "a virtuous woman among them," Thayer went even farther by suggesting that women were a danger to the political process. By the following year, more than 90 similar petitions were received by Thayer's committee and Massachusetts would repeal the statute banning interracial marriage in 1843. An extraordinary survival representing women's contribution to the early fight for racial equality.
Amber D. Moulton, "Closing the 'Floodgate of Impurity': Moral Reform, Antislavery, and Interracial Marriage in Antebellum Massachusetts." Journal of the Civil War Era, vol. 3, no. 1, 2013, pp. 2-34.