"Gentlemen . . . is this to be right and justice? Is this a free country? No, it [is] murder."1 This impassioned statement from a 1788 petition comes not from angry white citizens making demands of the new republic but from enslaved African Americans in Connecticut urging the legislature to "grant us a liberation." In this and similar petitions from the late 1700s (see Supplemental Sites below), we see the first recorded collective action of African Americans to influence white society. Later a network of black associations for mutual help and public activism would grow throughout the north (see #5: Mutual Benefit).
These four petitions (called "memorials") present a range of origins, goals, and outcomes. The first three were submitted to state legislatures in the new republic; the last is one of the first petitions to the early U.S. Congress from African Americans. Although some have only a few signatures, all were backed by a larger number of free blacks and, in some cases, white abolitionists who published the petitions as pamphlets.
Read these petitions aloud; you will find them easier to understand despite the spelling and eighteenth-century language. In addition, they will sound not like dry legal texts but as heartfelt appeals from real people. (11 pages.)
- 1788, Connecticut. Submitted by unidentified African American slaves who "beg for murcy" and liberation, this petition describes the harsh treatment of slaves in the northern state. There is no record of the legislature's response.
- 1788, Massachusetts. Submitted by a "greet Number of Blacks freemen"— including Prince Hall, founder of the first black Masonic lodge, this petition to end slavery was spurred by the kidnapping of three free blacks in Boston and their transport to the Caribbean to be enslaved. Due to this petition and the growing anti-slavery consensus in Massachusetts, the legislature banned the slave trade a month later.
- 1791, South Carolina. Submitted by "Free-Men of Colour" in this southern state, the petition requests repeal of the "Negro Act" that limited the civil rights of free blacks. The petitioners claim the citizenship status afforded white Americans under the newly enacted federal Constitution, and remind the legislators that as free men they contribute to the government through their taxes. The petition was rejected by the state legislature.
- 1797, U.S. Congress. One of the first African American petitions to the U.S. Congress, this petition was submitted by four black men who had been freed by their owners in North Carolina over a decade earlier and had moved north to Philadelphia. They sought "redress of grievances," as guaranteed in the First Amendment, i.e., they sought federal protection for all freed slaves from state laws allowing their capture and re-enslavement. After a debate in the House of Representatives, the petition was denied a committee hearing.
- What ideals—political and religious—are offered to justify granting the petitioners' requests?
- What realities of early republican life—social and economic—are offered to justify granting the petitioners' requests?
- Which mode of argument—emphasizing ideals or realities—do you think were more persuasive in these petitions (even if they were denied)?
- How do the petitioners use American revolutionary rhetoric?
- How do they refer to the rights heralded in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights?
- When and why do they assure the white legislators that political equality is not their goal?
- Analyze their juxtaposition of forceful and deferential language. When do the petitioners feel it wise to "back off" in their rhetoric?
- To what extent were the petitions successful even if ignored, tabled, or denied?
- What would black activists of the 1800s learn about collective action from the experience of these petitioners?
- Compare these petitions with the 1919 petition of black teachers to the South Carolina legislature (in Vol. III of The Making of African American Identity).
||How did enslaved and free African Americans construct communal identities in antebellum America?|
||What obstacles did they confront from white people? from other African Americans?|
||How did they respond to these obstacles?|
||How did African Americans exercise autonomy and influence through community?||
|1788 petition (Conn.): || 2
|1788 petition (Mass.): || 2 (plus introductory information)
|1791 petition (S.C.): || 2 (plus introductory information)
|1797 petition to Congress: || 5
|TOTAL ||11 pages
Other petitions from slaves and free blacks, late 1700s
Prince Hall, overview in Africans in America (PBS)
- - Petition for freedom, Massachusetts, 1773
- - Petition for freedom, Massachusetts, 1774
- - Petition to end slavery, Massachusetts, 1777
- - Petition to end slavery, Connecticut, 1779
- - Petition against "taxation without representation," Massachusetts, 1780
- - Petition to end slavery, Connecticut, 1780
- - Petition for freedom, Pennsylvania, 1781
- - Petition for land submitted by fugitive slaves in Spanish Florida, 1795
Race and Slavery Petitions Project, Dept. of History, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Slaves and the Courts: 1740-1860, Library of Congress (American Memory)
General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865
Image: "naturel right to be free": phrase in petition for freedom from a group of enslaved blacks to Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, His Majesty's Council, and the House of Representatives, June 1773, detail. Massachusetts Historical Society, Jeremy Belknap Papers. Permission pending.
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