Emancipation Proclamation: Petitioning for Freedom

Today’s blog post comes from National Archives social media intern Anna Fitzpatrick.

January 1 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. While this document is remembered for freeing the slaves in the Southern states, petitioners had been attempting to end slavery since the nation’s founding. Petitions by anti-slavery groups were sent to the newly elected Congress soon after it first met.

On December 30, 1799, the Reverend Absalom Jones and other free blacks of Philadelphia sent a petition to Congress. Although they recognized the “blessing” of their freedom, they were concerned about their fellow men: “We cannot be insensible of the condition of our afflicted Brethren, suffering under various circumstances in different parts of these States; but deeply sympathizing with them, We are incited by a sense of Social duty and humbly conceive ourselves authorized to address and petition you in their behalf.”

Page one of the Petition of Absalom Jones, and Others, People of Color, and Freemen Against the Slave Trade to the Coast of Guinea; HR 6A-F4.2; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

Jones and the petitioners noted that the Constitution “is violated by a trade carried on in a clandestine manner to the Coast of Guinea.” They also mentioned that the Southerners’ practice of kidnapping free African Americans and transporting them to Southern states in order to sell them also violated the “solemn Compact” of the Constitution. The petition ends with this appeal:

In the Constitution, and the Fugitive bill, no mention is made of Black people or Slaves—therefore if the Bill of Rights, or the declaration of Congress are of any validity, we beseech that as we are men, we may be admitted to partake of the Liberties and unalienable Rights therein held forth—firmly believing that the extending of Justice and equity to all Classes, would be a means of drawing down, the blessings of Heaven upon this Land, for the Peace and Prosperity of which, and the real happiness of every member of the Community, we fervently pray.”

The note written on the back records that the petition was considered by a committee, since it involved laws regarding the Slave Trade. However, an amendment was added under that first note: “And that such parts of the said petition, which invite Congress to legislate upon subjects from which the general government is precluded by the Constitution have a tendency[?] to create disquiet and jealousy, and ought therefore to receive no encouragement or countenance from this House.”

Page 4 of the Petition of Absalom Jones, and Others, People of Color, and Freemen Against the Slave Trade to the Coast of Guinea; HR 6A-F4.2; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

The story of Absalom Jones and his petition on behalf of fellow African Americans is featured in The Meaning and Making of Emancipation, an ebook created by the National Archives as part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. (The free ebook will be available for multiple devices later this month. Check  here and on the National Archives web site for more information.)

The National Archives will also commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation with a special display of the original document at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, from Sunday, December 30, to Tuesday, January 1. The commemoration will include extended viewing hours, inspirational music, a dramatic reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and family activities and entertainment for all ages.

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2 Responses to Emancipation Proclamation: Petitioning for Freedom

  1. Tim Duskin says:

    It was not the Southerners who carried on the Trans Atlantic slave trade. It was ships from New England and New York which obtained the slaves from Africa and transported them to the South to sell them. With Northerners transporting and selling the slaves and Southerners buying them, both are, unfortunately, responsible for the institution of slavery.


    • Tim Duskin says:

      There were also slaves in the Northern states in colonial times. The Northern states began abolishing slavery during the Revolutionary War and continued during the early national period.


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