STOCKBRIDGE — In 1773, 11 men met in an upstairs room of Colonel John Ashley's house in Sheffield. Together they wrote a declaration against British tyranny and for the rights of the people of the colonies. It was presented for approval at the town meeting on Jan. 12. Once approved, The Sheffield Resolves were published in the "Massachusetts Spy" (also known as Thomas' Boston Journal).
There is a preamble and 12 "resolves". They include no taxation without representation, the right to a trial, right to peaceful enjoyment of a citizen's privileges, and equality under the law.
The Resolves of 1773 open: "Mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty, and their property."
The 1776 Preamble to the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Some historians dismiss the Sheffield Resolves; others call the Sheffield resolves the first American Declaration of Independence. In either case, who wrote them?
Best and brightest
"At a meeting of the freeholders and other inhabitants of the Town of Sheffield 5th day of January, 1773, Colonel John Ashley was chosen moderator VOTED, To chuse a committee to consist of eleven person, to take into consideration the grievances which Americans in general, and the inhabitants of this province in particular, labour under The following persons were for that purpose nominated and chosen, viz. Mr. Theodore Sedgwick, Deacon Silas Kellog, Col. Ashley, Doctor Lemuel Bernard, Mr. Aaron Root, Major John Fellows, Mr. Philip Callender, Capt. William Day, Deacon Ebenezer Smith, Capt. Nathaniel Austin, and Capt. Stephen Dewey; then voted, that this meeting be adjourned to the 12th day of January current."
These 11 were the best, the brightest and probably the richest men in Sheffield. Whatever history decides about the similarities between the Resolves and the Declaration of Independence, remember this: these men were not declaring independence instead they were articulating grievances.
"At a meeting of the freeholders and other inhabitants of the town of Sheffield at the meeting-house, on the 12th day of January, 1773... the chairman of said committee made report as follows, viz. The committee of this town deeply lamenting the unhappy situation to which Americans in general, and his Majesty's most faithful subjects the inhabitants of this province in particular, are reduced make a draught of such"
The wording reflected that they considered the king "his present most gracious majesty". They considered themselves "professing, as with truth we do, the most inviolable regard and attachment, to our most gracious sovereign". Far from declaring war or independence, they were asking their sovereign to address and ameliorate "our present dangerous situation."
In seven days, 11 men wrote a document that may have influenced the Declaration of Independence.
John Ashley's farm produced hay, corn, rye, oats, flax, fruit for cider, wheat, and tobacco; the extensive meadows provided forage for herds of cattle and sheep; his woodlands yielded charcoal for the iron works. In addition to the iron works he had a potash works as well as a saw mill, gristmill, nail factory, plaster mill, and carding mill. He was arguably the richest and most influential man in Sheffield. He was named chair of the committee; however, it was his friend and colleague, Theodore Sedgwick, who was asked to write the document.
Sedgwick was an attorney. He represented MumBet in her bid for freedom. A slave in the Ashley household, it is possible MumBet was in the room serving the men as they worked on the Resolves. She may have perceived the irony of these slave owners demanding freedom.
Sedgwick was elected delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to the U.S. Senate, was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and named to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
There is little doubt that the Resolves found their way to Philadelphia as the Declaration of Independence was being written. Sedgwick could have carried a copy as could another delegate John Fellows. John Fellows, the father, fought in the French Indian. His son, John Fellows fought in the Revolutionary Wars. He was general of one of two Berkshire regiments and aide-de-camp to George Washington. At Washington's behest, Fellows put down Shays' Rebellion.
Visit their homes
These men were friends, neighbors, business associates, and sometimes family. Stephen Dewey was town clerk. The young John Fellows married Ashley's daughter Mary.
Whether it influenced later documents or stands alone, Berkshire can be proud of the Sheffield Resolves.
Some of the signers' houses still stand. Just for fun drive by the homes of Theodore Sedgwick, 126 Main Street, Aaron Root, 414 South Main Street, John Fellows, 1601 Barnum Street, 159 Main Street, and 180 Main Street, and Stephen Dewey, 254 South Main Street. Visit the Colonel John Ashley House Museum at 117 Cooper Hill Road.
Carole Owens, a Berkshire writer and historian, is giving a lecture about the Resolves on April 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Dewey Hall, Sheffield.