In 1783 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that slavery was unconstitutional. As the only state that prohibited slavery, Massachusetts soon became an asylum for runaway slaves. Because the Articles of Confederation contained no fugitive slave clause, there was no effective means for slave owners to recover their runaway property from Massachusetts. That was expected to change because of the fugitive slave clause in the newly proposed Constitution.
Moses Brown condemned the Constitutional Convention for
so “very Unhapily Wound[ing] the Cause of Liberty & the rights of Men.”
In 1785, Cato had run away from his master John Slocum, a merchant in Newport, R.I. Cato, said to be about forty years old and “a very honest orderly man,” was hired by Samuel Rodman, a Quaker whale merchant in Nantucket, Mass. Both Slocum and Cato realized that the Constitution might empower the forcible return of Cato to his former master. Rather than run away to Canada, leaving his family, friends, and job in Massachusetts, Cato agreed to a compromise. He would voluntarily return to slavery for one year whereupon he would be free. A contract was drawn up which was kept in the hands of Rodman. According to Moses Brown, a Providence, R. I. Quaker abolitionist, “many, many Others have agreed with their masters to Serve a Certain time and then take manumission.” Brown condemned the Constitutional Convention for so “very Unhapily Wound[ing] the Cause of Liberty & the rights of Men.”
- The story of Cato is found in letters from William Rotch, Sr., to Moses Brown, Nantucket, 8 November 1787, and Moses Brown to James Thornton, Sr., Providence, 13 November 1787, both in John P. Kaminski, ed., A Necessary Evil? Slavery and the Debate over the Constitution (Madison, Wis., 1995), 74-76.