massachusetts freedom petitions

Massachusetts Memorial and Petition for Freedom

(1776)

 

Introduction

Their campaign began in January 1773. Presenting his appeal on behalf “of many Slaves, living in the Town of Boston, and other Towns in this Province,” a man named Felix Holbrook asserted black colonists’ right to freedom. Soon joined by other black signatories such as Chester Joie, Sambo Freeman, and Peter Bestes, Holbrook’s campaign would ultimately garner the support of leading white patriots and towns throughout Massachusetts, influence the new constitution of 1780, and help lead to the effective and legal abolition of slavery in their state. 

Here are reprinted two of the petitioners’ appeals, both presented to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1774, and both reprinted in the patriot organ, The Massachusetts Spy. In these documents we may witness the petitioners’ masterful familiarity with, and use of, Christian, republican, and natural rights discourse to make their case. Insisting on their dignity as men, they claim a “right to demand” of the patriot opposition “in such a way, and in such a manner as your Honours would expect from such a body of fellowmen, professing the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” In the act of petitioning they also reveal their consummate expertise in navigating Massachusetts’s political and legal system, noting how “there is no law of Great-Britain, nor yet in this province, whereby we can be held in slavery without our consent.” In spite of their firm rhetoric, the authors of these documents ultimately joined the colonial opposition to help bring about the downfall of royal government in Massachusetts, praying that “we may rejoice when you rejoice.” Endorsed by such patriot luminaries as James Swan and John Allen, their efforts were published frequently by the patriot press, like the Spy, and their campaign inspired towns and counties across Massachusetts to voice their opposition to slavery, or to even endorse civil equality, when almost none had done so before. Though little information remains about any of these men during the War for Independence, Holbrook at least volunteered to fight in the Rhode Island militia, and Primus Hall, the son of another petitioner, Prince Hall, throughout the east coast.

Alongside these appeals there is also pictured the final draft of the last bill in 1777 that the petitioners inspired during their campaign. It would have guaranteed not only the abolition of slavery, but “all the freedom Rights, privileges, & immunities” to the freedmen as citizens of the state. Though this bill would not become law, the ally who presented it, Nathaniel Peasely Sargeant, would later sit as Associate Justice when the state’s Supreme Court outlawed slavery in Commonwealth v. Jennison (1783). Moreover, the movement the freedom petitioners unleashed would make a lasting impact on revolutionary discourse and the fate of slavery in the North. Prompting copycat petitions in New Hampshire, Connecticut, and nationally in 1778, 1779, 1797, and 1800, and even influencing St. George Tucker’s scheme for gradual emancipation in 1796, the freedom petitions helped launch a strategy for abolition and amelioration of black conditions that lasted well into the nineteenth century. Among the first to interpret the Declaration of Independence as committing the nation to the principle of human equality, the freedom petitioners also helped first give voice to one of the richest refrains in America’s language of liberty. 

Questions to consider:

  • How were black colonists able to influence Massachusetts’s political and legal system? Why might they have been unable to play a similar role in colonies like South Carolina? 
  • Why would white patriots in Massachusetts, like the editor of the Massachusetts Spy, Isaiah Thomas, be interested in supporting the petitioners’ campaign? 
  • Roughly the same number of African American men fought for the patriots as for the British. What led black colonists to make the decisions they did when enlisting with one side or the other?

Grant Stanton

Further Reading
Sources
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Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire (October 5, 2022) Massachusetts Memorial and Petition for Freedom (1774). Retrieved from https://slaverylawpower.org/massachusetts-memorial-and-petition-for-freedom-1774/.
"Massachusetts Memorial and Petition for Freedom (1774)." Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire - October 5, 2022, https://slaverylawpower.org/massachusetts-memorial-and-petition-for-freedom-1774/
Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire August 21, 2022 Massachusetts Memorial and Petition for Freedom (1774)., viewed October 5, 2022,<https://slaverylawpower.org/massachusetts-memorial-and-petition-for-freedom-1774/>
Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire - Massachusetts Memorial and Petition for Freedom (1774). [Internet]. [Accessed October 5, 2022]. Available from: https://slaverylawpower.org/massachusetts-memorial-and-petition-for-freedom-1774/
"Massachusetts Memorial and Petition for Freedom (1774)." Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire - Accessed October 5, 2022. https://slaverylawpower.org/massachusetts-memorial-and-petition-for-freedom-1774/
"Massachusetts Memorial and Petition for Freedom (1774)." Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire [Online]. Available: https://slaverylawpower.org/massachusetts-memorial-and-petition-for-freedom-1774/. [Accessed: October 5, 2022]
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Massachusetts Freedom Petitions

[From The Massachusetts Spy, Sept. 1, 1774]

For the MASSACHUSETTS SPY.

Mr. Thomas, 

You are requested to publish the following Address of the Africans, to the Council and house of Representatives. 

To the honourable his Majesty’s Council and the honourable House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay, in General Court assembled, at Boston, the 20th day of January, 1774. 

The many stedfast resolutions made by this large province, to maintain their liberties and privileges, wherewith God hath made them free (without which no man, even the meanest of them can be happy in this life, for what is life without the enjoyment of it?) gives us who are unhappily, and unjustly deprived of that blessing, so great expectations of your taking up our last petition which we laid before your Honours the last sessions, and give us the thousands of poor unhappy Africans their freedom, which we as men, and by nature have a right to demand of your Honours in such a way, and in such a manner as your Honours would expect from such a body of fellowmen, professing the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; we ask nothing from your Honours but what you would desire yourselves, were you in our situation : Nay even the very dumb beasts groan under the heavy load of slavery, and try all manner of ways to get rid of it; much more men who are made after the image of God, and have the sense of feeling, without any colour of justice, but pleasure and custom, and against the wills or consents of our forefathers, or us their children : But since the all-wise God hath seen fit to permit it to be so for a number of years past, his will be done, we desire to submit to his will in all things; yet from the first settling of this province it was not so. But yet we can sincerely hope and pray, that God would preserve your liberties and privileges as at the beginning, and that peace and love may again be restored between the mother country and the provinces, and that his Majesty would hear your prayers, and that you would hear ours, and grant us an answer of peace, that we may rejoice when you rejoice, as well as mourn when you mourn, as we do this day; and as we are not void of fellow-feeling, we conclude we must be men.

 

[From The Massachusetts Spy, Sept. 8 1774]

The Petition of the African SLAVES residing in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay.

To his Excellency THOMAS GAGE, Esquire, Governor of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay, in New-England; to the Honorable his Majesty’s Council, and the Honorable House of Representatives, in General Court assembled at Salem, A.D. 1774. The Petition being the Third of us the Subscribers, in Behalf of all those, who by divine Permission, are held in a State of Slavery, within the Bowels of a Free Country, humbly sheweth, 

THAT your petitioners apprehend they have in common with other men, a natural right to be free, and without molestation, to enjoy such property, as they may acquire by their industry, or by any other means not detrimental to their fellow-men; and that no person can have any just claim to their services without their consenting by contract to become servants; we were dragged by the cruel hands of power (some of us) from our dearest connections, and others stolen from the bosoms of tender parents, and brought hither to be enslaved. Thus are we deprived of every thing that has a tendency to make life even tolerable. The endearing ties of husband, wife, parent, children, friends; children did we say? Alas! No sooner are they born, but they are either sold or given away helpless, without our consent, whereby we are rendered ignorant of them and they of us; and whenever any of those connections are formed amongst us, the pleasures are embittered by the cruel consideration of our slavery. By our deplorable situation we are rendered incapable of shewing our obedience to the Supreme Governor of the Universe, by being obliged to conform ourselves to the duties which naturally grow out of such relations, how can a slave perform the duties of husband or parent, wife or child? We are often under the cruel necessity of obeying man, not only in the omission of, but frequently in opposition to the laws of God, so inimical is slavery to religion! As we are hindered by our situation from an observance of the laws of God, so we cannot reap an equal benefit from the laws of the land with other subjects. 

There is no law of Great-Britain, nor yet in this province, whereby we can be held in slavery without our consent. We are sensible that many objections have, and may be objected against our liberation; but we with gratitude to those honorable gentlemen who spoke so much in our favor last sessions though some may say we were amused, these with many other grievances we feel, we your humble petitioenrs hope your Excellency and Honors will again take up this our third petition, and cause an act or resolve to be passed to give your petitioners redress. 

The candor and humanity of your Excellency, and the trust we put in the honorable House, encourage us to hope, that same [sic] method will be fallen upon to grant such a number of his Majesty’s subjects, and useful members of society effectual relief. 

And your petitioners as in duty bound, shall ever pray.

[Bill for Abolition and Civil Equality. First read before the House on June 9, 1777.

State of Massachusetts Bay in the Year of Our Lord 1777 

An Act for preventing the the wicked & unnatural practice of holding persons in Slavery ––

Whereas the practice of holding Africans & the children born of them, or any other persons in Slavery is unjustifiable so contrary to the Laws of natures, scandalous to the Proffesors of the Religion of Jesus Christ & a disgrace to all in a civil government, especially at a time when appealing to [illegible] they are asserting their natural freedom.

Wherefore for preventing such so base a practice is for the future, & establishing to every Person [illegible] residing within this State the invaluable blessing of Liberty – Be it enacted by the Council & House of Representatives in General Court assembled & by the Authority of the same, That all persons whether Black or of other complexion, above 21 years of age now held in Slavery, shall from after the   [blank]  day [blank]  next be free from any subjection to any master or mistress who have claimed their servitude by right, or purchase, heirship, free gift, or otherwise, they are hereby intitled to all the freedom Rights, & privileges, & immunities that do, or of right ought to, belong to any other subjects of this State , any usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding ––

And be it enacted by the Authority aforesaid that all written Deeds, Bargains, sales, or conveyances, & other writings or or contracts without writing whatsoever for conveying or transferring any property in any person or to the service & labor of any person whosoever, of more than twenty one years of age, to a third person except by order of some Court of record, for some crime of a [illegible] has been decreed guilty or by their own voluntary Contract for a term not exceeding seven years shall be & hereby is declared null & void. 

And whereas diverse persons now have in their service Negroes, mulattoes, or others who have been deemed their slaves or property & who are now incapable of earning their living, by reason of age, or infirmities, & may be desirous of continuing in the service of their masters or mistresses – be it therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid that whatever negro or molatto who shall be desirous of continuing in the service of his master of mistress & shall voluntarily declare the same before two Justices of the Courts in which said master of mistress resides, shall have a right to continue in the service, & to a maintenance from this master or mistress, and if they are incapable of earning their living shall be supported by the said master of mistress or their Heirs during the lives of said servants anything in this act to the Contrary notwithstanding.

Provided nevertheless that nothing in this act shall be under-standstood to prevent any master of Vesell, or other person from bringing into this State any persons, not Africans, from any other part of the world except the United States of America, & selling their service for a term of time not exceeding 5 years, if 21 years of age, or if under 21 not exceeding the time when they he or she so brought into the state shall be 26 years of age, to pay for & in consideration of the transportation and other charges said master of vessel or other person may have been at, agreeable to contracts made with the persons so transported, or their Parents or Guardians in their behalf, before they are brought from their own Country –

EARLY ACCESS:  Transcription is under editorial review and may contain errors.
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