A Revolution for Whom?: Petitions from Ordinary Men in the Early Republic

Documents Introduction:

One of the best sources that historians use to get at the political ideals of ordinary people are the petitions that they wrote to their governments. Petitions are an especially important source for understanding the grievances and ideals of ordinary people the further back in American history we go because there were so few other ways to capture public opinion and the views of the average person. In the colonial and Revolutionary eras, petitions by ordinary people are some of the only sources we have to get a sense the things that angered or inspired ordinary people, how they conceived of justice, and what they imagined their rights to be or what they wanted them to become. They are a catalog of grievances about the past and present and hopes for the future.

Petitions are an especially important source for understanding what ordinary people thought about the American Revolution, in this case, how they assessed the immediate results of the Revolution in the 1780s and 90s. In the decades after the War of Independence, ordinary Americans frequently turned to petitions because they still had a hard time getting their voices heard despite all the democratization the American Revolution brought. For all the reforms that opened up political life, politics remained limited by a host of anti-democratic measures designed to limit the voice of the average citizen. There were property requirements for officeholding and voting, public voice voting (no secret ballot), and governments purposefully structured to empower what Alexander Hamilton called the “wealthy and well born” over the mass of the citizenry. And of course, there were severe gender and race restrictions that largely banned women from voting and allowed Black men the vote in a small number of northern states. In short, although the revolutionary governments had taken many democratic steps forward, politics remained pretty undemocratic by modern standards.

In this new and largely undemocratic American democracy, those who felt unempowered typically turned to petitioning their governments just as they had under British rule. Ordinary people put their grievances on paper and delivered them to political leaders, beseeching governments to adopt their proposed solutions. Sometimes they did this as individual, sometimes as groups. The number and kind of petitions reflected gender and racial norms of the late-eighteenth century. Most petitions were from White men, who petitioned for a variety of reasons from personal pleas to political causes. Black men petitioned less frequently. So too did women, who almost always petitioned for personal issues (like the widow of Revolutionary war soldier petitioning for a pension). It was deemed inappropriate for women to petition about political issues and so there are hardly any examples of overly political petitioning by women in the Revolutionary era.

The petitions that follow focus on politics, rights, and ideals and, as a result, they were written by men, both Black and White. The petitions here deal with class and race issues. The grievances cited and solutions proposed in each reveal what ordinary Black and White men saw as some of the most significant limits of the American Revolution.

Question: What do these petitions reveal about the limits of the American Revolution for ordinary White and Black men?


D1 and D2: Massachusetts Regulation/Shays’s Rebellion Petitions

Introduction: At the end of the War for Independence, the Revolutionary elite began enacting a series of policies that transformed the post-war economic downturn into a deep and lasting depression. In every colony, elite leaders began eliminating state-issued paper currencies that had formed 2/3 of the visible money supply and enacting taxes in gold and silver to begin paying off the debt from the Revolutionary War. That tax revenue typically went directly into the pockets of the very wealthiest Americans who had purchased the vast majority of the nation’s war debt IOUs for pennies on the dollar. Most ordinary Americans were upset by all this: the elimination of paper money, the enactment of taxes in gold and silver destined for wealthy war-debt speculators, and the economic devastation those policies caused.

D1: Petition to the General Court from the Town of Dracut (Massachusetts Regulation/Shays’s Rebellion)

Source: http://shaysrebellion.stcc.edu/shaysapp/artifact.do?shortName=petition_dracut

Commonwealth of Massachusetts

To the Hon.ble Senate & House of Representatives in
General Court Assembled.

The Petition of the Inhabitants of the town of Dracut Humbly Sheweth, that We: many of us, in the course of the late War, by Means of the repeted calls of Government for Men & Money, which we ever Endeavoured with Exertion & Punctuallity to obey we became Indebted by Private contracts as well as by our large Public Debt: and altho we attend ever so closely to Oeconemy Frugality & Industry, unless Debtors are Permitted to pay their Private Debts with Property, both real & Personal, we conceive it will be out of the Power of a great part of the Community, as well as the Inhabitants of this town, to Extricate themselves from the Labyrinth of Debt into which they are fallen; for Money which at Present is the only tender to discharge Debts, seems to have taken its flight to some other Country; or hid itself in the secret Confines of those who have a greater love of their own Interest, then they have to that of their Neighbours: while Individuals are Constantly hauled away to Goal for Debt, without any regard to the offers of [the] Debter to discharge the same by resigning up his Property, to remain untill they spend their Estates, or part with the [property] for a very small Proportion of the real Value; and in either case their Families reduced to Poverty & Distress which we esteem [to be] a Grevious burden that ought to be removed. We do not wish anything to be done that will Prevent the honest Creditor from receiving his dues; but desire that Justice may take place, even if Ruin should be the Consequence. And that oppression may be discountenanced by the Legeslature; and the Oppressed releived from the Grueling Yoke We Earnestly request your Honors to Pass an Act early in your next Setting: Making Personal Estate of all kinds and real Estate where there is no Personal (except the Necessary utentials utentials for upholding Life) a tender at an apprised Value, in discharge of all Demanded Debts, or in some other Way Provide an Equitable relief. That a more easy, & less Expensive Method of recovering Debts may be Provided. We Request Your Honors, to repeal the Laws of the Commonwealth Establishing the Courts of Common- Pleas, and make Provision for the business to be done at less Expensive Tribunals; if the business now transacted by the Courts of Common-Pleas was Refered to the Justices of the Peace in the Commonwealth for Desicion, the Expence that would be Saved (taking every Circumstance into Consideration) would in our opinion be equel to the Expence of Supporting Civil Government: and We are clear that the business may be done by a Single Justice, with the Assistance of a Jury where either of the Parties desire it, with as much Propriety, and with as much Safety to the Property of Individuals, and to as General Satisfaction as it is done by those Courts; Especially as an appeal may lie to the Supreme Judicial Court, where the Principal part of disputes in Law are now terminated.

We Also Request Your Honors, at this time of General burden, to take into Consideration the Salaries of the Officers of Government, and lower them so much as to comport Connectively with the Necesseties of the People, and the Nature & importance of the office which they Respectively Sustain. Especially the Governors Salary, which we Esteem to be much Higher than is Necessary under the Present circumstances of ye Government, & Low price of yNecessaries of Life, therefore is an Additional burden upon those who have a full Load without it. We view Money only as the Representative of Property: and we conceive that five hundred pounds Represents as much Property at this time taking into Consideration the Retrenchment of a Governors Expence which has taken place, as eleven hundred pounds did when the Governors Salary was Established; if that be true Surely the Salary ought to be lowered to five hundred pounds; if eleven hundred was enough when it was Established; which we beleive no one will Doubt; and We Quere if these Ideas are just, whether an alteration will render the Salary less Honorable or Permanent, in the Sense of the Constitution.

We also Request Your Honors to move the General Court out of the town of Boston 1Because considering the depravity of human Nature, & how liable Men are to be Biased, the Number & Abilities of ye Inhabitants of that town, and the opportnity they have to converse with the Members of yGeneral Court, We think throws more than a Proportionable weight into the Seale of Legeslation in their Favour. And that, without any Reflection on the Inhabitants of the town of Boston, for we are convinced, that the disposition of Town & Country are the same, where the same opportunity Presents.

2.dly. Because when part of the Members while the Court is Setting are attending to their Merchandize Speculation &c the business of ye Government is Procrastinated, and the Expence Consequently Enhanced.

3dly Because the Expence of the Members is much higher in the town of Boston, then it would see in a Country Town.

The town of Dracut have Troubled the General Court with Petitions as little Perhaps as any town in the Commonwealth, and should not do it at this time, did- not we think the Necessaties of the People in General, good Oeconemy, and even Common Justice Required an alteration in the System of Civil Policy within this State, and that such alteration, may take place as will releive the distressed; Quell the dangerous Commotion that are amongst us; Unite the People in Support of Republicanism, & the Principles of our Constitution; Promote a Principle of Brotherly love, and genuine Benevloence and Terminate in ye General good of Mankind we as in duty Bound will every pray:-

At a Legal Meeting of the Freeholdors and other Inhabitants of the Town of Dracut Qualified by Law to vote in Town affairs. assembled at the Meeting House in said Town On Monday the 25 Day of Septemr 1786 for the purpose among other Things of Petitioning the General Court. after a full Descussion of the foregoing Petition and Consideration of the former Paragraph by Paragraph. Voted the same be signed by Mr William Hildreth Town Clerk in Behalf of the Town: and that the Honourable Joseph Bradley Nasnum be Desired to Present the same to the General Court

William Hildreth Town Clerk

In Senate Septr 29th 1786 Read & committed
Israel Nichols & Richard branch
Esqrs with such as the Hon.ble
House may join to consider & report
Sent down for concurrence

SamPhillips Junr Presidt.

In the House of Representavies
Sept29, 1786
Read and concurred & Mr Hutchinson
Mr Brown of Lexington & Mr Clarke are joined

Artemas Ward Speaker

In Senate Oct 5th. 1786
Richbranch Esqr appointd in room of
Mr Baker-

Petition from the
Town of Dracut

Mr Brooks
Mr Branch


D2: Petition from Town of Greenwich, Massachusetts

Source: Samuel Eliot Morison, Sources and Documents Illustrating the American Revolution, 1764-1788 and the Formation of the Federal Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 208-210.

January, 16, 1786

To the Honourable Senate and the House of Representatives in General Court assembled att their next session:

A Petition of the Subscribers humbly sheweth—

That in the time of the late war, being desirous to defend secure and promote the wrights and liberties of the people, we spared no pains but freely granted all that aid and assistance of every kind that our civel fathers required of us.

We are sencable also that a great debt is justly brought upon us by the war and are as willing to pay our shares toward itt as we are to injoy our shars in independency and constatutional priviledges in the Commonwealth, if itt was in our power. And we beleve that if prudent mesuers ware taken and a moderate quantety of mediums to circulate [paper money] so that our property might sel for the real value we mite in proper time pay said debt.

But with the greatest submittion we beg leave to informe your Honours that unles something takes place more favourable to the people, in a little time att least, one half of our inhabitants in our oppinion will become banckerupt—how can itt be otherwise—the constables are dayly [selling] our property both real and personal, our land after itt is [appraised] by the best judges under oath is sold for about one third of the value of itt, our cattle about one half of the value, the best [E]nglesh hay thirteen shillings pre tone…And we beg leave further to informe your honours that att suits of law are very numerous and the attorneys in our oppinion very extravigent and oppressive in their demands. And when we compute the taxes laid upon us the five preceeding years: the state and county, town and wartime taxes, the amount is equil to what our farms will rent for. Sirs, in this situation what have we to live on—no money to be had; our estatates dayly posted and sold, as above described. What can your honours ask of us unles a paper curancy or some other medium be provided so that we may pay our taxes and debts. Suerly your honours are not strangers to the distress of the people but doe know that many of our good inhabitants are now confied in goal [jail] for debt and for taxes; maney have fled, others wishing to flee to the State of New York or some other State; and we believe that for two years past four inhabitents have removed from this State to some other State to one that has come from some other State to settle in this State.

Honoured Sirs, As not these imprisonments and feeling away of our good inhabitents very injurious to the credit or honour of the Commonwealth? Will not the people in the neighbouring States say of this State: altho the Massachusets [boast] of their fine constatution, their government is such that itt devours their inhabitents? Notwithstanding all these distresses, we hear of no abatement of sallerys, but his Excellency the Governor must be paid eleven hundred a year out of the moneys collected as before mentioned, and other sallerys and grants to other gentlemen, as your honours very well know. Iff these things are honest, just and rite, we sincearly with to be convinced of itt but we honestly confess itt is beyond our skill to reconcile these sallerys and grants with the principles of our [state] Constatution.

D3 and D4: Petitions Against the Federal Constitution (1787-1788)

When the Founding Fathers revealed their new US Constitution to the world in September, 1787, they ignited a political firestorm both for and against the new national charter. There was strong support for the Constitution among many ordinary people, who wanted to see it ratified, often despite grave concerns about its lack of a bill of rights and numerous undemocratic features. Ordinary people in seaports towns wanted a stronger national government that would open foreign markets and protect shipping; craftsmen wanted the new government to help American manufacturing by taxing foreign imports; many small farmers in Georgia and South Carolina were desperate for a federal army to protect them from hostile Creek and Cherokee Indians.

The majority of ordinary Americans, however, probably opposed the ratification of the Constitution. Most opponents (labeled “Antifederalists” by the Constitution’s supporters) opposed ratification because they saw the Constitution as part of an undemocratic counter-revolution that rolled back key democratic gains. The believed the Constitution took too much power from the states and invested it in a too powerful central government that had been made unaccountable to the public and that needed to be reigned in by a bill of rights. One of the main ways that the Constitution’s opponents expressed their opposition was through petitions, producing over 6,000 petitions against ratification. What follows are two examples of the kind of arguments those petitions contained.

D3: List of Objections to the Federal Constitution, 1787

Source: https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/919

Original Source: Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist, vol. 6 (University of Chicago Press, 1981), 34-36.

1st. A standing army, that bane to freedom and support of tyrants, and their pampered minions; by which almost all the nations of Europe and Asia have been enslaved.

2nd.  An arbitrary capitation or poll tax, by which the poor, in general, will pay more than the rich, as they have, commonly more children, that their wealthy dissipated neighbours.

3rd.  A suppression of trial by a jury of your peers, in all civil cases, and even in criminal cases, the loss of the trial in the vicinage, where the fact and the credibility of your witnesses are known, and where you can command their attendance without insupportable expence, or inconveniences.  

4th. Men of all ranks and conditions, subject to have their houses searched by officers, acting under the sanction of general warrants, their private papers seized, and themselves dragged to prison, under various pretences, whenever the fear of their lordly masters shall suggest, that they are plotting mischief against their arbitrary conduct.

5th. Excise laws established, by which our bed chambers will be subjected to be searched by brutal tools of power, under pretence, that they contain contraband or smuggled merchandize, and the most delicate part of our families liable to every species of rude or indecent treatment, without the least prospect, or shadow of redress, from those by whom they are commissioned.  

6th. The Liberty of the Press (that grand palladium of our liberties) totally suppressed, with a view to prevent a communication of sentiment throughout the states.  This restraint is designedly intended to give our new masters an opportunity to rivet our fetters the more effectually.

7th. A swarm of greedy officers appointed, such as are not known at present in the United States, who will riot and fatten on the spoils of the people, and eat up their substance.

8th. The militia of New-Hampshire, or Massachusetts, dragged to Georgia or South Carolina to assist in quelling an insurrection of Negroes in those states: and those of Georgia, to another distant quarter, to subdue their fellow citizens, who dare to rise against the deposition of government.

9th. The citizens of the state of New-Hampshire or Georgia, obliged to attend a trail (on appeal) at the seat of government, which will, probably be at the distance of at least five hundred miles form the residence of one of the parties, by which means, the expence of suits will become so enormous as to render justice unattainable but by the rich.

10th. The states perpetually involved in the wars of Europe, to gratify the ambitious views of their ambitious rulers, by which the country will be continually drained of its men and money.

11th. The citizens constantly subjected to the insults of military collectors, who will, by the magnetism of that most powerful of all attractives, the bayonet, extract from their pockets (without their consent) the exorbitant taxes imposed on them by their haughty lords and masters, for the purpose of keeping them under, and breaking their spirits, to prevent revolt.

12th. Monopolies in trade, granted to the favourites of government, by which the spirits of adventure will be destroyed, and the citizens subjected to the extortion of those companies who will have an exclusive right, to engross the different branches of commerce.

13th. An odious and detestable Stamp act, imposing duties on every instrument of writing, used in the courts of law and equity, by which the avenues to justice will, in a great measure, be burned, as it will enhance the expences on a suit, and deter men from pursuing the means requisite to obtain their right.—Stamp duties also, imposed on every commercial instrument of writing—on literary productions, and particularly, on news papers to useful knowledge in arts, sciences, agriculture, and manufactures; and a prevention of political information throughout the states.  Add to the above enumeration, the severest and most intolerable of all curses—that of being enslaved by men of our own creation (as to power) and for whose aggrandizement, many of us have fought and bled.  Men who will, perhaps, construe our most innocent remarks and animadversions of their conduct, treason, misprison of treason, or high crimes and misdemeanours, which may be punished with unusual severity; we shall then be in a most forlorn and hopeless situation.

D4: The Address and Reasons of Dissent Of the Minority of the Convention Of the State of Pennsylvania, to their Constituents, 1787

Our objections are comprised under three general heads of dissent, viz.

WE DISSENT, First, Because it is the opinion of the most celebrated writers on government, and confirmed by uniform experience, that very extensive territory cannot be governed on the principles of freedom, otherwise than by a confederation of republics, possessing all the powers of internal government; but united in the management of their general, and foreign concerns….

We dissent, secondly, because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government, which from the nature of things will be an iron handed despotism, as nothing short of the supremacy of despotic sway could connect and govern these United States under one government….

The powers of Congress under the new constitution, are complete and unlimited over the purse and the sword, and are perfectly independent of, and supreme over, the state governments: whose intervention in these great points is entirely destroyed. By virtue of their power of taxation, Congress may command the whole, or any part of the property of the people….

The judicial powers vested in Congress are also so various and extensive, that by legal ingenuity they may be extended to every case, and thus absorb the state judiciaries, and when to consider the decisive influence that a general judiciary would have over the civil polity of the several states, we do not hesitate to pronounce that this power, unaided by the legislative, would effect a consolidation of the states under one government….

The first consideration that this review suggests, is the omission of a BILL OF RIGHTS, ascertaining and fundamentally establishing those unalienable and personal rights of men, without the full, free and secure enjoyment of which there can be no liberty, and over which it is not necessary for a good government to have the control. The principal of which are the rights of conscience, personal liberty by the clear and unequivocal establishment of the writ of habeas corpus, jury trial in criminal and civil cases, by an impartial jury of the vicinage or county, with the common law proceedings, for the safety of the accused in criminal prosecutions; and the liberty of the press, that scourge of tyrants, and the grand bulwark of every other liberty and privilege: the stipulations heretofore made in favor of them in the state constitutions, are entirely superceded by this constitution.

Thus it appears, that the liberties, happiness, interests, and great concerns, of the whole United States, may be dependent upon the integrity, virtue, wisdom, and knowledge of 25 or 26 men. How inadequate and unsafe a representation! Inadequate, because the sense and views of 3 or 4 millions of people diffused over so extensive a territory, comprising such various climates, products, habits, interests, and opinions, can not be collected in so small a body; and besides, it is not a fair and equal representation of the people, even in proportion to its number, for the smallest state has as much weight in the senate as the largest, and from the smallest of the number to be chosen for both branches of the legislature; and from the mode of election and appointment; which is under the control of Congress; and from the nature of the thing, men of the most elevated rank in life, will alone be chosen. The other orders in the society, such as farmers, traders, and mechanics, who all ought to have a competent number of their best informed men in the legislature, will be totally unrepresented.

The representation is unsafe, because in the exercise of such great powers and trusts, it is so exposed to corruption and undue influence, by the gift of the numerous places of honor and emolument, at the disposal of the executive; by the arts and address of the great and designing; and by direct bribery….

A standing army in the hands of a government placed so independent of the people, may be made a fatal instrument to overturn the public liberties; it may be employed to enforce the collection of the most oppressive taxes, and to carry into execution the most arbitrary measures. An ambitious man who may have the army at his devotion, may step up into the throne, and seize upon absolute power.

The absolute unqualified command that congress have over the militia may be made instrumental to the destruction of all liberty, both public and private; whether of a personal, civil, or religious nature…

Nathaniel Breading, John Ludwig, John Smilie, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Baird, John Bishop, Adam Orth, Joseph Heister, John A. Hanna, Joseph Powel, John Whitehill, James Martin, John Harris, William Findley, Robert Whitehill, John Baird, John Reynolds, James Edgar, Jonathan Hoge, William Todd, Nicholas Lutz,

Philadelphia, December 12, 1787. [Philadelphia: Printed by E. Oswald, at the [Coffee-House.]

D5 and D6: Ordinary White Men Petition to Limit Black Rights

D5: Petition from Amelia County, Virginia, November 10, 1785

Source: Fredrika Teute Schmidt and Barbara Ripel Wilhelm, “Early Proslavery Petitions in Virginia,” The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. 30, No. 1, Chesapeake Society (Jan., 1973), pp. 133-146 

To the honourable the General Assembly of Virginia, the Remonstrance and Petition of the Free Inhabitants of Amelia County.


When the British Parliament usurped a Right to dispose of our Property without our Consent, we dissolved the Union with our Parent Country, and established a Constitution and Form of Government of our own, that our Property might be secure, in Future. In Order to effect this we risked our Lives and Fortunes, and waded through Seas of Blood. By the favourable Interposition of Providence our Attempt was crowned with Success. We were put in the Possession of. our Rights of Liberty and Property: And these Rights as well secured, as they can be by any human Constitution or Form of Government. But notwithstanding this, we understand a very subtle and daring Attempt is made to dispossess us of a very important Part of our Property. An Attempt set on Foot, we are informed, by the Enemies of our Country, Tools of the British Administration, and supported by certain Men among us of considerable Weight, To WREST FROM US OUR SLAVES, by an Act of the Legislature for a general Emancipation of them. An Attempt unsupported by Scripture or sound Policy.

It is unsupported by Scripture. For we find that under the Old Testament Dispensation, Slavery was permitted by the Deity himself. Thus, Leviticus Ch. 25. Ver. 44, 45, 46. “Both thy Bond Men and Bond Maids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the Heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy Bond Men and Bond Maids. Moreover, of the Children of the Strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their Families that are with you, which they beget in your Land, and they shall be your Possession, and ye shall take them as an Inheritance, for your Children after you, to inherit them for a Possession; they shall be your Bond-men forever.” This Permission to buy and inherit Bond-men and Bond-maids, we have Reason to conclude, continued through all the Revolutions of the Jewish Government, down to the Advent of our Lord. And we do not find, that either he or his Apostles abridged it. The Freedom promised to his Followers, is a Freedom from the Bondage of Sin and Satan, and from the Dominion of Mens Lusts and Passions; but as to their Outward Condition, whatever that was before they embraced the Religion of Jesus, whether Bond or Free, it remained the same afterwards. This St. Paul expressly asserts I Cor. Chap. 7. Ver. 20. where he is speaking directly to this very Point, ‘Let every Man abide in the same Calling, wherein he is called’; and Ver. 24. ‘Let every Man wherein he is called, therein abide with God.’ Thus it is evident the said Attempt is unsupported by Scripture.

It is also exceedingly impolitic. For it involves in it, and is productive of Want, Poverty, Distress, and Ruin to the Free Citizen; Neglect, Famine and Death to the black Infant and superannuated Parent; The Horrors of all the Rapes, Murders, and Outrages, which a vast Multitude of unprincipled, unpropertied, revengeful, and remorseless Banditti are capable of perpetrating; inevitable Bankruptcy to the Revenue, and consequently Breach of public Faith, and Loss of Credit with foreign Nations; and, lastly, sure and final Ruin to this now flourishing free and happy Country.

We therefore, your Petitioners and Remonstrants, do solemnly adjure and humbly pray you that you will discountenance and utterly reject every Motion and Proposal for emancipating our Slaves; that as the Act lately made, empowering the Owners of Slaves to liberate them, hath produced, and is still productive of, very bad Effects, you will immediately and totally repeal it; and that as many of the Slaves, liberated by that Act, have been guilty of Thefts and Outrages, Insolences and Violences, destructive to the Peace, Safety, and Happiness of Society, you will make effectual Provision for the due Government of them.

And your Petitioners shall ever pray, etc. etc.

Legislative Petitions, 1784-1785. Richmond, Virginia State Library.

D6: White Craftsmen Petition to Limit Black Craftsmen

Source: The Southern Debate Over Slavery: Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1778-1864, 6-7.

To The Honourable Hugh Rutledge Esq. Speaker, and the other Members of the Honourable House of Representatives of the State of South Carolina in the General Assembly Convened.

The Petition of the House-Carpenters and Bricklayers of Charleston,

Humbly Sheweth,

That your Petitions under very great Inconveniences in their respective Occupations ever since the Commencement of the present War, having scarce had sufficient Employments to support their Families, owning, they apprehend, in a great Measure, to a Number of Jobbing Negroe Tradesmen, who undervalue Work by undertaking it for very little more than the Materials would cost, by which it is evident the Stuff they work with cannot be honestly acquired. Your Honourable House will be sensible that this Practice must be prejudicial, not only to the Proprietors of Materials for building, but hightly detrimental to your Petitioners, Who are thereby deprived of the Means of gaining a Livelihood by their Industry.

Your Petitioners therefore humbly request your Honourable House to take their distressed Case into your serious Considerations, and to enact such a Law as man prohibit Negroes from undertaking Work on their own Account, and to adopt and salutary Measures for the Redress of said Grievance, and for the Encouragement of Industry as to your Wisdom shall seem meet, and your Petitioners as in Duty bound shall pray, &c, &c,

19th Feby 1783
[signed] Daniel Cannon                                  Benjamin Wish
Stephen Shrewsbury                                      Benjn Russell
John Clement                                                    John Calvert Junr
John Lesesne                                                     John Lewis Poyas
Jno Muncrief                                                      Jas Brown

[26 additional signatures]

D7: Free Black Craftsmen Petition for Rights

Source: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h70t.html

Original Source: Records of the General Assembly, Petitions, 1791, No.181, South Carolina Department of Archives and History

A Memorial to the South Carolina Senate

To the Honorable David Ramsay Esquire President and to the rest of the Honorable New Members of the Senate of the State of South Carolina
The Memorial of Thomas Cole Bricklayer P. B. Mathews and Mathew Webb Butchers on behalf of themselves & others Free-Men of Colour.
Humbly Sheweth

That in the Enumeration of Free Citizens by the Constitution of the United States for the purpose of Representation of the Southern States in Congress Your Memorialists have been considered under that description as part of the Citizens of this State. Although by the Fourteenth and Twenty-Ninth clauses in an Act of Assembly made in the Year 1740 and intitled an Act for the better Ordering and Governing Negroes and other Slaves in this Province commonly called The Negro Act now in force Your Memorialists are deprived of the Rights and Privileges of Citizens by not having it in their power to give Testimony on Oath in prosecutions on behalf of the State from which cause many Culprits have escaped the punishment due to their atrocious Crimes, nor can they give their Testimony in recovering Debts due to them, or in establishing Agreements made by them within the meaning of the Statutes of Frauds and Perjuries in force in this State except in cases where Persons of Colour are concerned, whereby they are subject to great Losses and repeated Injuries without any means of redress.

That by the said clauses in the said Act, they are debarred of the Rights of Free Citizens by being subject to a Trial without the benefit of a jury and subject to Prosecution by Testimony of Slaves without Oath by which they are placed on the same footing.

Your Memorialists shew that they have at all times since the Independence of the United States contributed and do now contribute to the support of the Government by cheerfully paying their Taxes proportionable to their Property with others who have been during such period, and now are in full enjoyment of the Rights and Immunities of Citizens Inhabitants of a Free Independent State.

That as your Memorialists have been and are considered as Free-Citizens of this State they hope to be treated as such, they are ready and willing to take and subscribe to such Oath of Allegiance to the States as shall be prescribed by this Honorable House, and are also willing to take upon them any duty for the preservation of the Peace in the City or any other occasion if called on.

Your Memorialists do not presume to hope that they shall be put on an equal footing with the Free white citizens of the State in general they only humbly solicit such indulgence as the Wisdom and Humanity of this Honorable House shall dictate in their favor by repealing the clauses the act aforementioned, and substituting such a clause as will efectually Redress the grievances which your Memorialists humbly submit in this their Memorial but under such restrictions as to your Honorable House shall seem proper.

May it therefore please your Honors to take your Memorialists case into tender consideration, and make such Acts or insert such clauses for the purpose of relieving your Memorialists from the unremitted grievance they now Labour under as in your Wisdom shall seem meet.

And as in duty bound your Memorialists will ever pray

D8: 1797 Petition From Slaves Freed From North Carolina

Source: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/community/text4/petitioncongress.pdf

Original Source: Annals of the Congress of the United States, 4th Congress, 2nd Session [March 1795-March 1797] VI (Washington, DC: 1849), pp. 2015-2024; online in American Memory (Library of Congress) at memory.loc.gov/ammem/ amlaw/lwac.html. In the public domain.

Introduction from National Humanities Center:

In 1775 North Carolina made it illegal to free slaves unless approved by a county court. Over the next decade, however, “persons from religious motives,” mostly members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), continued to free their slaves, in some cases buying slaves in order to free them. In response, North Carolina passed another law in 1788 allowing the capture and sale of any former slave who had been freed without court approval, with twenty percent of the sale price going to the person who reported the illegal manumission. Many freed African Americans fled the state to avoid being captured and sold back into slavery. Four such men, living in the North after being freed in North Carolina, petitioned the U.S. Congress in 1797 to consider the plight of these former slaves and adopt “some remedy for an evil of such magnitude.” Was not this act of North Carolina, they asked, “a direct violation of the declared fundamental principles of the Constitution?” Below are excerpts from the men’s petition (written by the black religious leader Absalom Jones) and the congressmen’s debate on sending the petition to a committee for consideration, as recorded in the Annals of Congress, 1797.

Document: [EXCERPTS]

Mr. SWANWICK presented the following petition: To the President, Senate, and House of Representatives. The Petition and Representation of the under-named Freemen, respectfully showeth:

THAT, being of African descent, late inhabitants and natives of North Carolina, to you only, under God, can we apply with any hope of effect, for redress of our grievances, having been compelled to leave the State wherein we had a right of residence, as freemen liberated under the hand and seal of humane and conscientious masters, the validity of which act of justice, in restoring us to our native right of freedom, was confirmed by judgment of the Superior Court of North Carolina, wherein it was brought to trial; yet, not long after this decision, a law of that State was enacted, under which men of cruel disposition, and void of just principle, received countenance and authority in violently seizing, imprisoning, and selling into slavery, such as had been so emancipated; whereby we were reduced to the necessity of separating from some of our nearest and most tender connexions, and of seeking refuge in such parts of the Union where more regard is paid to the public declaration in favor of liberty and the common right of man, several hundreds, under our circumstances, having in consequence of the said law, been hunted day and night, like beasts of the forest, by armed men with dogs, and made a prey of as free and lawful plunder.

Among others thus exposed, I, JUPITER NICHOLSON, of Perquimans county, N.C., after being set free by my master, Thomas Nicholson, and having been about two years employed as a seaman in the service of Zachary Nickson, on coming on shore, was pursued by men with dogs and arms; but was favored to escape by night to Virginia, with my wife, who was manumitted by Gabriel Cosand, where I resided about four years in the town of Portsmouth, chiefly employed in sawing boards and scantling; from thence I removed with my wife to Philadelphia, where I have been employed, at times, by water, working along shore, or sawing wood. I left behind me a father and mother, who were manumitted by Thomas Nicholson and Zachary Dickson; they have since been taken up, with a beloved brother, and sold into cruel bondage.

I, JACOB NICHOLSON, also of North Carolina, being set free by my master, Joseph Nicholson, but continuing to live with him till, being pursued at night and day, I was obliged to leave my abode, sleep in the woods, and stacks in the fields, &c, to escape the hands of violent men who, induced by the profit afforded them by law, followed this course as a business; at length, by night, I made my escape, leaving a mother, one child, and two brothers, to see whom I dare not return.

I, JOE ALBERT, manumitted by Benjamin Albertson, who was my careful guardian to protect me from being afterwards taken and sold, providing me with a house to accommodate me and my wife, who was liberated by William Robertson; but we were night and day hunted by men with guns, swords, and pistols, accompanied with mastiff dogs; from whose violence, being one night, apprehensive of immediate danger, I left my dwelling, locked and barred, and fastened with a chain, being at some distance from it, while my wife was by my kind master locked up under his roof. I heard them break into my house where, not finding their prey, they got but a small booty, a handkerchief of about a dollar value, and some provisions; but, not long after, I was discovered and seized by Alexander Stafford, William Stafford, and Thomas Creesy, who were armed with guns and clubs. After binding me with my hands behind me, and a rope round my arms and body, they took me about four miles to Hartford prison, where I lay four weeks, suffering much from want of provision; from thence, with the assistance of a fellow-prisoner, (a white man,) I made my escape, and for three dollars was conveyed, with my wife, by a humane person, in a covered wagon by night, to Virginia, where, in the neighborhood of Portsmouth, I continued unmolested about four years, being chiefly engaged in sawing boards and plank. On being advised to move Northward, I came with my wife to Philadelphia, where I have labored for a livelihood upwards of two years, in Summer mostly, along shore in vessels and stores, and sawing wood in the Winter. My mother was set free by Phineas Nickson, my sister by John Trueblood, and both taken up and sold into slavery, myself deprived of the consolation of seeing them, without being exposed to the like grievous oppression.

I, THOMAS PRITCHET, was set free by my master Thomas Pritchet, who furnished me with land to raise provisions for my use, where I built myself a house, cleared a sufficient spot of woodland to produce ten bushels of corn; the second year about fifteen; and the third, had as much planted as I suppose would have produced thirty bushels; this I was obliged to leave about one month before it was fit for gathering, being threatened by Holland Lockwood, who married my said master’s widow, that if I would not come and serve him, he would apprehend me, and send me to the West Indies; Enoch Ralph also threatening to send me to jail, and sell me for the good of the country; being thus in jeopardy, I left my little farm, with my small stock and utensils, and my corn standing, and escaped by night into Virginia, where shipping myself for Boston, I was, through stress of weather landed in New York, where I served as a waiter for seventeen months; but my mind being distressed on account of the situation of my wife and children, I returned to Norfolk in Virginia, with a hope of at least seeing them, if I could not obtain their freedom; but finding I was advertised in the newspaper, twenty dollars the reward for apprehending me, my dangerous situation obliged me to leave Virginia, disappointed of seeing my wife and children, coming to Philadelphia, where I resided in the employment of a waiter upward of two years….

WE BESEECH YOUR IMPARTIAL ATTENTION to our hard condition, not only with respect to our personal sufferings, as freemen, but as a class of that people who, distinguished by color, are therefore with a degrading partiality, considered by many, even of those in eminent stations, as unentitled to that public justice and protection which is the great object of Government. We indulge not a hope, or presume to ask for the interposition of your honorable body, beyond the extent of your constitutional power or influence, yet are willing to believe your serious, disinterested, and candid consideration of the premises, under the benign impressions of equity and mercy, producing upright exertion of what is in your power, may not be without some salutary effect, both for our relief as a people, and toward the removal of obstructions to public order and well-being.

IF, NOTWITHSTANDING all that has been publicly avowed as essential principles respecting the extent of human right to freedom; notwithstanding we have had that right restored to us, so far as was in the power of those by whom we were held as slaves, we cannot claim the privilege of representation in your councils, yet we trust we may address you as fellow-men, who, under God, the sovereign Ruler of the Universe, are intrusted with the distribution of justice, for the terror of evil-doers, the encouragement and protection of the innocent, not doubting that you are men of liberal minds, susceptible of benevolent feelings and clear conception of rectitude to a catholic [meaning “universal”] extent, who can admit that black people (servile as their condition generally is throughout this Continent) have natural affections, social and domestic attachments and sensibilities; and that, therefore, we may hope for a share in your sympathetic attention while we represent that the unconstitutional bondage in which multitudes of our fellows in complexion are held, is to us a subject sorrowfully affecting; for we cannot conceive this condition (more especially those who have been emancipated and tasted the sweets of liberty, and again reduced to slavery by kidnappers and man-stealers) to be less afflicting or deplorable than the situation of citizens of the United States, captured and enslaved through the unrighteous policy prevalent in Algiers [the “Barbary Pirate” states that captured ships and crews and held them for ransom]. We are far from considering all those who retain slaves as wilful oppressors, being well assured that numbers in the State from whence we are exiles, hold their slaves in bondage, not of choice, but possessing them by inheritance, feel their minds burdened under the slavish restraint of legal impediments to doing justice which they are convinced is due to fellow-rationals. May we not be allowed to consider this stretch of power, morally and politically, a Governmental defect, if not a direct violation of the declared fundamental principles of the Constitution; and finally, is not some remedy for an evil of such magnitude highly worthy of the deep inquiry and unfeigned zeal of the supreme Legislative body of a free and enlightened people?

SUBMITTING OUR CAUSE TO GOD, and humbly craving your best aid and influence, as you may be favored and directed by that wisdom which is from above, wherewith that you may be eminently dignified and rendered conspicuously, in the view of nations, a blessing to the people you represent, is the sincere prayer of your petitioners. JACOB NICHOLSON, JUPITER NICHOLSON, his mark, JOB ALBERT, his mark, THOMAS PRITCHET, his mark. PHILADELPHIA, January 23, 1797.

♦ DEBATED and consideration denied in the U.S. House of Representatives, 30 January 1797*