Friday, July 3, 2020

“The natural right of all Men—& their Children”

Lancaster Hill, Peter Bess, Brister Slenser, Prince Hall, et al.
From Black Writers of the Founding Era

The top of the copy of the 1777 petition in the Massachusetts Archives Collection. The documents and transcriptions in the collection were gathered into 241 scrapbook volumes between 1837 and 1846 by the Rev. Joseph Barlow Felt.
Although it is one of at least five petitions against slavery presented by African Americans to the Massachusetts government between 1773 and 1777, this document marks a pivot from pre-Revolutionary colonial government to that of the newly independent state. The language itself bears signs of this transition. The first 125 and last 130 words repeat almost exactly the phrasing of a petition submitted by “a Great Number of Blacks” on May 25, 1774. But the middle section, from the term “unalienable right” borrowed from Jefferson’s Declaration through the sentence about America’s “unhappy difficulties with Great-Britain,” bases its arguments on natural law and the idea that in seeking their freedom African Americans are inspired by and seek to imitate the American struggle for independence. Little is known of Lancaster Hill and most of his associates, but all the petitions submitted in Massachusetts in the 1770s seem to have emerged from the same group of community leaders. The exceptional figure among the eight signers is Prince Hall (c.1735–1807), whose remarkable life as an activist, abolitionist, and founder of Black Freemasonry has been the subject of numerous articles and at least four books.

A bill to abolish slavery in Massachusetts was drafted on June 9, 1777, and then allowed to die. But others took up the cause and slavery was found incompatible with the state constitution by the courts in 1783.

The above description of the petition was supplied by James G. Basker, editor of the forthcoming Library of America volume Black Writers of the Founding Era, which gathers this document with nearly 200 other texts composed between 1770 and 1800 by 110 different authors representing all thirteen original states. Featuring poems, letters, civil rights petitions, slave narratives, autobiographies, sermons, speeches, and letters to the editor, the collection shows how the long-neglected voices of Black men and women from a variety of backgrounds—both free and enslaved, urban and rural, illiterate and highly educated—were essential members of the founding generation of the United States.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.

To the Honorable Council & House of Representatives for the State of Massachusetts-Bay in General Court assembled January 13th 1777—

The Petition of a great number of Negroes who are detained in a state of Slavery in the Bowels of a free & Christian Country Humbly Shewing—

That your Petitioners apprehend that they have, in common with all other Men, a natural and unalienable right to that freedom, which the great Parent of the Universe hath bestowed equally on all Mankind, & which they have never forfeited by any compact or agreement whatever—But they were unjustly dragged, by the cruel hand of Power, from their dearest friends, and some of them even torn from the embraces of their tender Parents—from a populous, pleasant and plentiful Country—& in Violation of the Laws of Nature & of Nation & in defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity, brought hither to be sold like Beasts of Burthen, & like them condemned to slavery for Life—Among a People professing the mild Religion of Jesus—A People not insensible of the sweets of rational freedom—Nor without spirit to resent the unjust endeavors of others to reduce them to a State of Bondage & Subjection—Your Honors need not to be informed that a Life of Slavery, like that of your petitioners, deprived of every social privilege, of every thing requisite to render Life even tolerable, is far worse than Non-Existence—In imitation of the laudable example of the good People of these States, your Petitioners have long & patiently waited the event of Petition after Petition by them presented to the Legislative Body of this State, & can not but with grief reflect that their success has been but too similar—They can not but express their astonishment, that it has never been considered, that every principle from which America has acted in the course of her unhappy difficulties with Great-Britain, pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your Petitioners—They therefore humbly beseech your Honors, to give this Petition its due weight and consideration, & cause an Act of the Legislature to be passed, whereby they may be restored to the enjoyment of that freedom which is the natural right of all Men—& their Children (who were born in this Land of Liberty) may not be held as Slaves after they arrive at the age of twenty one years—So may the Inhabitants of this State (no longer chargeable with the inconsistency of acting, themselves, the part which they condemn & oppose in others) be prospered in their present glorious struggles for liberty; & have those blessings secured to them by Heaven, of which benevolent minds can not wish to deprive their fellow Men.

And your Petitioners, as in Duty Bound shall ever pray.

Lancaster Hill
Peter Bess
Brister Slenser
Prince Hall
Jack Pierpont
Nero Funelo
Newport Sumner
Job Look

(January 13, 1777)

Transcribed from the copy in the Massachusetts Archives Collection, volume 212: “Revolution Resolves, 1777.” A similar text, made from a different manuscript copy, was published in 1877 by the Massachusetts Historical Society; the two sources vary primarily in their spelling.