Cuffee led a small tax resistance effort for the civil rights of black Americans (in the 18th century!). This is what makes him most notable at The Picket Line, but the rest of his life shows him to have been a heroic and great-spirited man, and it’s a shame that this anniversary will probably go mostly unnoticed elsewhere.
Here’s how the tale of his tax resistance effort was told in Men of Mark ():
Paul and his brother John having been called on to pay personal taxes by the collector, they both refused to do so. They were given so much trouble about it, that finally they agreed, in the language of Oliver Goldsmith, “to stoop to conquer.” They paid the taxes, as it was a trifling sum, and determined to make an appeal to the Massachusetts Legislature, believing in the doctrine that they had heard all of their lives, that there should be “no taxation without representation.”
In defiance of the prejudice of the times, their appeal was heard and a law was enacted by the Legislature rendering all free persons of color liable to taxation according to the ratio established for the white men, and, at the same time, granting to them full privileges that belonged to any other citizen of Massachusetts.
What a glorious result! See what a strong man can do by using that power which he has. Let us emulate his example. The right of petition is still ours. There are still many rights denied us which we could get by simply reaching out our hands to take them. Let the colored people of that State honor this grand man; and we trust that yet some testimonial to his memory shall be reared.
It is with this hope that we have given him a place in this book. Let no one despise youth. We are so apt to think that young men are extravagant and indiscreet when they are bold enough to oppose what might seem, or what is, “popular opinion.” Do right if you stand alone, remembering there are blows to take as well as to give. There were many colored people at that time who thought these colored men were fools, and said they were violating the law because they didn't obey what was an unjust law. Be discreet and attempt much, if but little be gained. There is honor even in a righteous effort.
Paul was only about twenty-one years old when he accomplished this result, scarcely able to vote when the privilege was granted.
This at least is how the story is most frequently told. If you delve into the details, as Henry Noble Sherwood did for his paper Paul Cuffe and His Contribution to the American Colonization Society, things become a bit more complex. Sherwood says that “an examination of the statutes of Massachusetts has failed to confirm the assertion that legislation was enacted giving the free negro the elective franchise.” Cuffee petitioned the Massachusetts legislature both in and , and neither petition seems to have been directly effective at the time.
However, his efforts took place in the midst of significant debate about civil rights in Massachusetts. A proposed post-revolutionary state Constitution would have prohibited people with black ancestry from voting, and would have explicitly acknowledged slavery as a legal institution. That Constitution was rejected, in part because of these provisions. The state Constitution that was finally approved in included the phrase “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights…” It was by reference to this clause, and the lack of any explicit legalization of slavery in the Constitution, that the state judiciary outlawed slavery in Massachusetts in .
It’s possible that Cuffee’s petition, and the injustice of his case, was influential in shaping the Constitution, its interpretation, or public opinion. But the fact that he had to petition against taxation without representation a second time in shows that the Constitution was not immediately interpreted as extending the right to vote to non-whites.
The Cuffee brothers also tried to get relief from taxation on more mundane grounds — that they were legally exempt as Indians (their mother was an Indian), and that Paul was below the age at which poll taxes were due. This didn’t work and so they were arrested in . They reverted to their “taxation without representation” defense, asking the authorities to…
…put a stroke on your next warrant for calling a town meeting so that it may legally be laid before said town by way of vote to know the mind of said town whether all free negroes and mulattos shall have the same privileges in this said town of Dartmouth as the white people have, respecting places of profit, choosing of officers, and the like, together with all other privileges, in all cases that shall or may happen or be brought in this said town of Dartmouth, or that we have relief granted us jointly from taxation which under our present depressed circumstances and your poor petitioners as in duty bound shall ever pay.
That didn’t work either. They eventually paid up and were released.
Following is the petition for relief from taxation that Paul Cuffee and his fellow-protesters presented to the Massachusetts legislature in :
The petition of several poor negroes and mulattoes, who are inhabitants of the town of Dartmouth, humbly showeth, —
That we being chiefly of the African extract, and by reason of long bondage and hard slavery, we have been deprived of enjoying the profits of our labor or the advantage of inheriting estates from our parents, as our neighbors the white people do, having some of us not long enjoyed our own freedom; yet of late, contrary to the invariable custom and practice of the country, we have been, and now are, taxed both in our polls and that small pittance of estate which, through much hard labor and industry, we have got together to sustain ourselves and families withall. We apprehend it, therefore, to be hard usage, and will doubtless (if continued) reduce us to a state of beggary, whereby we shall become a burden to others, if not timely prevented by the interposition of your justice and your power.
Your petitioners further show, that we apprehend ourselves to be aggrieved, in that, while we are not allowed the privilege of freemen of the State, having no vote or influence in the election of those that tax us, yet many of our colour (as is well known) have cheerfully entered the field of battle in the defence of the common cause, and that (as we conceive) against a similar exertion of power (in regard to taxation), too well known to need a recital in this place.
We most humbly request, therefore, that you would take our unhappy case into your serious consideration, and, in your wisdom and power, grant us relief from taxation, while under our present depressed circumstances; and your poor petitioners, as in duty bound, shall ever pray, &c.
In reading bits and pieces of the life of Cuffee that are scattered here and there in old books and on the web, I am impressed again and again with the calm determination with which this self-made son of a slave asserted his dignity. There’s a great story in an old copy of the Friends’ Intelligencer that demonstrates this.
Cuffee was the part-owner and commander of a ship, which he’d staffed with a black crew. When he tried to sail this novelty out of a Virginia port, the bigoted customs house collector wouldn’t permit it. So Cuffee went to see the President of the United States, James Madison.
“Capt. Cuffee was a Quaker, and used their plain language” — which meant in part that he would not use titles or honorifics when addressing other people, such as the president, and so “on being introduced to President Madison, he said: ‘James, I have been put to much trouble, and have been abused,’ and then proceeded to tell the President his story, giving such proof as was needed in his case…”
“James” — himself a Virginian and a slave owner — ordered the customs house collector at Norfolk, Virginia to clear Cuffee’s ship for departure. “[A]lthough the Collector believed black men had no rights that white men were bound to respect, yet he was bound in this instance to respect the right of Capt. Cuffe.”
How many Americans today do you suppose would have the self respect to walk up to the president of the U.S. government and address him straightforwardly by his name rather than searching for some sort of kowtowing honorific or European affected third-person title (“your eminence” or some such)?