Where’s My Liberty Mr. Washington?

The 1797 Petition of Free Men to Congress

Where's My Liberty Mr. Washington?

George Washington and his family [around table], Black servant William Lee standing in background.

March 25 is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The 1797 Petition

From the beginning of the American Republic the disparity between the words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and the reality played out in society.

In 1797 four freed men asked Congress to reconsider a law and a system that undercut the very idea of manumission. The men, Jupiter Nicholson, Jacob Nicholson, Joe Albert and Thomas Pritchet, asked Congress to listen to their case against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 and state laws governing free status. Even though the four men had been freed by their masters in North Carolina, they weren’t free in all eyes — a court order was needed to secure freedom, overruling the master’s wishes. Freed people living in the North were subject to capture and return to slavery and should they enter the slave states to visit family their freed status was revoked.

THE 1797 PETITION to Congress from four free African Americans
to protect freed slaves from capture and resale

♦ SUBMITTED 23 January 1797 by Jupiter Nicholson, Jacob Nicholson, Joe Albert, and Thomas Pritchet, residents of Philadelphia; Pennsylvania, formerly enslaved in North Carolina before being freed by their owners
♦ PRESENTED by Congressman John Swanwick, Pennsylvania, 30 January 1797
♦ DEBATED and consideration denied in the U.S. House of Representatives, 30 January 1797 (read the petition)

The freed men’s pleas, articulated by America’s first African-American Episcopal priest, Absalom Jones, are familiar: common rights of man, principles, native rights of freedom.

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.

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?

Congress was to consider whether their plea for the protection of their freedom should even be heard by the body.

Mr. [George] THATCHER: The gentleman from North Carolina [Mr. BLOUNT]*is of the opinion that these people being slaves, the House ought not to pay attention to their prayer. This, he said, is quite new language ⎯ a system of conduct which he never saw the House practise, and hoped he never should . . . . This was a language which opposed the Constitutional freedom of every State where the Declaration of Rights had been made; they all declare that every man is born equally free, and that each have an equal right to petition if aggrieved ⎯ this doctrine he never heard objected to.

. . . These were a set of men on which the fugitive law had no power, and he thought they claimed protection under the power of that House, which always ought to lean towards freedom.

Mr. W[illiam]. SMITH . . . These men are slaves, and, he thought, not entitled to attention from that body [the House]; to encourage slaves to petition the House would have atendency to invite continual applications. Indeed it would tend to spread an alarm throughout the Southern States; it would act as an “entering wedge,” whose consequences could not be foreseen. . .

Mr. [James] MADISON said, he should be sorry to reject any petition whatever, in which it became the business of the House to attend; but he thought this case had no claim on their attention. . . . If they are free by the laws of North Carolina, they ought to apply to those laws, and have their privilege established. If they are slaves, the Constitution gives them no hopes of being heard here. . .

On the question for receiving the petition put, it was negatived ⎯ yes 33, noes 50

Society of Friends and Abolition

Members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, were among the first and most staunch proponents of abolition. Many Quakers themselves owned slaves, but the Society’s push to end slavery among its members came early and strong.

In 1688 a group of Quakers living in Philadelphia wrote the first document in North America to call for the end of slavery, basing its argument on Christian teachings like the Golden Rule. Though it had little effect, The Germantown Protest, put Pennsylvania and Philadelphia at the heart of the anti-slavery movement.

Local celebrity Benjamin Franklin changed his mind on the practice and in 1787 became the president of the Philadelphia Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, commonly known as the Abolition Society, founded by Quakers in 1774, the same year the slave-holding Quakers were told to choose between their slaves and their religion.

The Washingtons and Ona Judge

So rare was slavery in 18th century Philadelphia, that when historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar came across an advertisement for a runaway slave in a local newspaper, she had to find] the story behind it. She traced the ad to the household of George Washington. It is well-known that the Washingtons were slave-owners, but this story took a twist. Ona Judge was born at Mount Vernon and became one of Martha Washington’s favorites.

When the Washingtons moved to New York and later Philadelphia they brought slaves with them. The slaves were rotated back to Virginia every six months so that they couldn’t be freed under local law which required no more than six month’s residence for freedom.

When Ona Judge learned that Martha Washington was planning to send her south to serve her granddaughter, Eliza Custis Law, cementing her bondage forever.  Ona walked out the door of the Washington’s household and never looked back. The Washingtons never gave up their search for their escaped “property” but Ona Judge was Never Caught.

The Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of the Compromise of 1850, a tough pro-slavery measure to appease slave states as California entered as a free state and tipped the number of states in favor of free states.

The details of the law were harsh: fugitives could not testify on their own behalf and were not permitted jury trials. Officials who refused to enforce the law were fined and anyone involved in aiding an escaped slave was subject to arrest and punishment. The act energized the abolition movement and played an important part in spurring Harriet Beacher Stowe to write the best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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