Celebrations in Boston

In Boston, "the Africans and descendants of Africans" residing in the city — they numbered about 1,200 — chose July 14 as the day to celebrate the abolition of the slave trade by the United States, Great Britain, and Denmark. In procession, two hundred Bostonians marched to the African Meeting House, built in 1806 on Beacon Hill, the heart of the black community. As would be the tradition from then on, their speaker was a white clergyman. That first year, it was the Congregational minister and geographer Jedidiah Morse (father of Samuel Morse).

Morse explained the slave trade and its abolition in Christian missionary terms:

It is remarkable, that while Africa lay enveloped in heathenish and Mahometan darkness, those who were to be made free in Christ, were brought, (though by the instrumentality of wicked men) to the light of his gospel, in Christian countries. But since the blessed gospel now sheds its genial influence on Africa, by the preaching of the missionaries of the cross, its natives have no need to be carried to foreign lands, in order to enjoy its light; and God hath shut the door against their further transportation.

As other ministers had done seven months earlier, he stressed that African Americans had to display "good behavior":

Be contented in the humble station in which providence has placed you. By your decent, respectful, regular, industrious, quiet behaviour, authorize your friends still to shew themselves friendly. You know how deeply interested the Speaker feels, in whatever concerns your honour and best happiness in both worlds. Be particularly on your guard against excess in the joys and festivities of this day. Be sober, be temperate, be pious; so will you give pleasure to your friends, and silence opposition from your enemies.

Finally, Morse told his audience that the "worst species of slavery" was sin and that "civil freedom, and its attendant blessings, will avail you nothing without" freedom from it. This was easy to say for a white man who had never been enslaved, whose ancestors had never been uprooted from their homeland. What his audience of freedpeople — many of whom still had loved ones enslaved below the Mason-Dixon Line — thought of that tactless, paternalistic peroration would have been interesting to know.

A short prayer, which went back to the reason for the celebration, was given at the end of the service:

O Gracious God, who lookest down from heaven, the height of thy sanctuary, to hear the groaning of the prisoner, and to loose those that were appointed to death; we give thee hearty thanks that it has of length pleased thee to put a stop to the slave trade, the miseries of which have so long oppressed Africa, and the sin of which has so loudly cried to thee for vengeance upon Europe.

In 1819 another white clergyman, Paul Dean, pastor of the First Universal Church was the main speaker.