John Ashley Moderates the Sheffield Resolves

John Ashley Moderates the Sheffield Resolves

The Sheffield Resolves were one of the early sparks which led to a full on revolution in the American Colonies.

Surprisingly, very little is known about most of the men who created such an important document.

This article discusses the life of John Ashley, whose house the discussions took place in.

John Ashley

John Ashley was a leading citizen of Sheffield in western Massachusetts when the British began suppressing the American colonies.

Ashley was a judge in the Court of Common Pleas, leaving him in charge of carrying out justice in the town.

In January of 1773 eleven of the most prominent citizens in Sheffield met to discuss how they should respond to the Intolerable Acts.  This meeting (most likely) took place in John Ashley’s house.

Ashley was chosen to moderate the discussions.

The Sheffield Resolves

The result of this assembly would be the Sheffield Resolves.  

Also known as the Sheffield Declaration, the group resolved and published a long list of grievances against the British Government, as well as an outline of the basic rights they deserved as citizens.  Additionally, they instructed David Ingersoll, their representative in the Massachusetts Provincial Assembly, to bring their resolutions into discussion by the colonial government.

Written by Theodore Sedgwick and signed by all the men in attendance, the Resolves were published in a Boston newspaper the following month.

This publication helped stir up revolutionary sentiment throughout the colonies.

Similarities to the Declaration of Independence

When reading the Sheffield Resolves, the first thing one will notices is how familiar it sounds.  This is because it is strikingly similar to the Declaration of Independence that would follow three years later.

The first resolution, ‘That mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property,’ is a less elegant version of Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration.

It continues to list the same grievances against Parliament that Jefferson would soon lay against the King.

Troubles With New York

An interesting footnote to the Sheffield Resolves is the last paragraph.  

The men add a grievance against the colony of New York.  

At the time, New York was claiming all the land east to the Connecticut River.  This meant that the people of Sheffield, who considered themselves Massachusetts citizens, were being claimed by New York.  This is similar to the issues Ethan Allen was having in Vermont.

Since Sheffield had a representative in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and not New York’s (Ingersoll), they also instructed him to bring this issue to the General Assembly.

Their business concluded, the men went about their lives.  

Sparking Abolition

John Ashley’s final lasting contribution to the Founding of America was when his slaves sued him for freedom.

MumBet (later known as Elizabeth Freeman), was counseled by Theodore Sedgwick, who authored the Sheffield Resolves.  He claimed that since the new Massachusetts Constitution stated that ‘all men are born free and equal,’ slavery was illegal in the State.

This argument won the day and let to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.  

Although Ashley considered appealing the case, most of the North was already trending toward abolition and therefore he decided not to fight the decision.  In his heart he knew keeping people in bondage was wrong.

Instead, Ashley offered Freeman to come back and work in his house for pay.  

She declined, as Ashley’s wife (though apparently not John) had been very harsh with her servants.

Conclusion

John Ashley’s small part in the American Revolution was to chair the meeting which provided the Sheffield Resolves.  These, in turn, inspired countless revolutionaries to take up the Patriot Cause.  Ashley also played a role, albeit on the wrong side, in the abolition of slavery for the State of Massachusetts.

If you are interested, the Sheffield Resolves can be read in full here.

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Since it is difficult to find a biography of John Ashley for sale, I am recommending our Book of the Month for June 2018 'Plain, Honest Men.'  You can read my review here.

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