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Free at Last
In the Old Hill Burying Ground in Concord, Massachusetts is a gravestone with this epitaph:
God wills us free; man wills us slaves.
I will as God wills; God's will be done.
Here lies the body of
a native of Africa who died
March 1773 aged about 60 years
Tho' born in a land of slavery,
He was born free.
Tho' he lived in a land of liberty,
He lived a slave.
Till by his honest, tho' stolen labors,
He acquired the source of slavery,
Which gave him his freedom;
Tho' not long before
Death, the grand tyrant
Gave him his final emancipation,
And set him on a footing with kings.
Tho' a slave to vice,
He practised those virtues
Without which kings are but slaves
This is one of the most famous epitaphs in history, written by Daniel Bliss, a loyalist lawyer from Concord just before the Revolutionary War who thought it was hypocritcal for those who espoused freedom from England to deny it to their negro slaves.
John Jack first turns up in church records as "Jack, Negro." He belonged to a shoemaker, Benjamin Barron, who died in 1754. His estate passed to his widow. Listed in the inventory of the estate was:
"One Negro servant named Jack £120"
"One Negro maid named Violet, being of no value."
John Jack raised £120 from earnings as a shoemaker to buy his freedom from his master's widow. In 1761 he bought from her daughter Susanna four acres of land and two more acres from someone else. Both deeds state he is a free man.
He worked at odd jobs for farmers and made shoes in the winter. Ailing, he sensed the end coming and made his will in December, 1772. In it he bequeathed everything to Violet, then living with Susanna Barron. But Violet was still a slave and could not legally own land and his properties passed back whence they came, to the Barron family. Daniel Bliss was appointed in the will as executor.
Daniel Bliss was born in Concord in 1740 and graduated from Harvard in 1760 and was admitted to the bar in 1765.
On March 20, 1775, Bliss allowed two British officers into his home in the center of Concord to recconoiter rebel activities and report back to General Gage. The presence of British spies was noted by the townspeople who threatened to kill him and his guests. Bliss was able to escape with the British officers late at night by a circuitous route.
He left his wife and children behind and arranged for his brother Samuel, also a loyalist, to go to Concord and salvage what he could and get his family to safety. Samuel was arrested on May 12, accused of guiding the British search for military contraband in Concord on April 19th that culminated in the Battle of North Bridge at Concord and the beginning of the Revolutionary War. He produced four witnesses who testified that he was in Boston on April 19 and he was released and fled to Boston.
Both he and his Brother Daniel received commissions in the British army and setttled in New Brunswick, Canada after the war, both doing very well.
The primary source of this article is John Jack, the Slave and Daniel Bliss, the Tory, a paper presented to the Concord Antiquarian Society in 1902 by George Tolman. Tolman says that one of the British officers who spied from Bliss's house in 1775 sent the epitaph home in a letter and it was published in a London newspaper and that the epitaph was copied many times and translated into many languages.
The original gravestone was broken and lay on the ground by the grave until 1830 when Rufus Hosmer, a lawyer and son of a fiery patriot who had stood up to refute a loyalist speech by Bliss at a Concord town meeting in 1774, sponsored a faithful copy that still stands today.
Tolman sums up eloquently:
“But for this poor slave, without ancestry, without posterity, without kindred, of a despised and alien race, a social pariah, his title to immortality is found only in his epitaph, which has made him, to his own race, the prophet of that great deliverance that was to come to them in blood and fire, a century after he had worked out his own emancipation.”
Rest in peace John Jack.
Copyright © 2020 Joseph Mirsky