From Ben Franklin to the Civil War: Antislavery Petitions in Congress

Today’s post comes from Natalie Rocchio, an archives specialist in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

One of the most contentious issues facing our nation in the early years was slavery. Unsurprisingly, the First Congress received a series of antislavery petitions as part of the first unified campaign to the new Federal Government. These petitions came from three organizations: the Philadelphia and New York Yearly Meetings of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery to Vice President John Adams, February 3, 1790. (National Archives Identifier 306388)

Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, February 3, 1790. (National Archives Identifier 306388)

Benjamin Franklin served as President of the Pennsylvania Society, which was believed to be the most influential of the three organizations.

On February 3, 1790, Franklin signed a petition which he sent to Congress on February 9, 1790, calling for Congress to “devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People” and to “promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race.” While Franklin’s petition was considered the most radical, all three petitions sparked intense debate in the House and the Senate.

After a day of debate, the Senate decided to take no action on the petitions. The House referred them to a select committee for further consideration. The committee reported on March 5, 1790, stating that the Constitution restrained Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves until 1808 and interfering with the emancipation of slaves. The House then tabled the petitions, effectively ending the debate on the issue of slavery in the First Congress.

Perhaps the most significant call for the abolition of slavery came over 80 years later. This round originated from the Women’s Loyal National League, an organization whose sole mission was to campaign for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. With Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the league’s president and Susan B. Anthony as the secretary, the women organized one of the largest petition drives the nation and Congress had ever seen.

"To the Women of the Republic," Address of the Women's Loyal National League Supporting the Abolition of Slavery, January 25, 1864. (National Archives Identifier 306400)

“To the Women of the Republic,” Address of the Women’s Loyal National League Supporting the Abolition of Slavery, January 25, 1864. (National Archives Identifier 306400)

 

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts introduced the first 100,000 signatures to Congress on February 9, 1864. And although in April the Senate passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, Sumner continued to introduce petitions from this drive at least twice a month throughout the summer. The House passed the 13th Amendment in January 1865, and it was sent to the states for ratification. The amendment was ratified by the states in December of that year.

Sumner credited the league as the principal force behind the drive for the 13th Amendment.

While these two petitions are nearly 80 years apart, each share a special piece of history in the monumental movement to abolish slavery in the United States.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Go here for more information on Franklin’s petition.

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