The Boston Slave Petitions

The founders demanded freedom for themselves, but not for their slaves. Early protests show that the enslaved noticed the flaw in the logic. February 6, 2012


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. One of the great ironies of Americas struggle for independence is that it was staged against the backdrop of slavery.

While the founding fathers insisted that all men were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, in some states more than half of the population endured under a state of involuntary service.

As the fire for revolution grew, some enslaved blacks took the step of pointing out that inconsistency to their general court. What they wrote is known to history as the Boston slave petitions. Our guest today is Harvey Bakari. Harvey, thank you for being here today.

Harvey Bakari: You're welcome.

Harmony: I want to talk about what's written in these petitions because the writing is so poignant. It so plainly puts their case before the Massachusetts General Court in this case. Tell me some of the things that they're pointing out and that they're asking for.

Harvey: Well there's a number of things that are pretty consistent. One is they're very … if you're going to petition someone you have to be respectful so they're very respectful of the body of government that they're speaking to. That's number one.

But they also clearly state their sentiments about their condition of bondage. In one of the petitions they even make the distinction between those blacks who are…the term they use, vicious, versus those who are more respectable or Christians. Again, to acknowledge that there is some variation within the free black and enslaved community.

What is also consistent, they continually bring out the fact that they are Christians and they have that Christianity in common with the whites in government and so it's like they're trying to create a bridge. We're both Christian brothers and we should therefore treat one another like Christian brothers.

So it seems like they kind of lay the groundwork first, respecting the government body, acknowledging that there's diversity within the free black and enslaved communities and then seeking to bridge connection between their Christian faith and then begin to present their petition, what they're asking for.

Harmony: I want to read a little bit from some of these petitions if we could because it's touching to me how they use legal channels and they're very formal and they're very respectful, but they have to point out did you notice that we're human too? And you see this coming through in some of this very simple, very powerful writing.

Harvey: "We have no property, we have no wives, no children, we have no city, no country, but we have a father in heaven and we are determined as far as his grace shall enable us."

And so that kind of shows a legacy of determination, the connection with faith, the belief that through religious faith, and particularly through Christianity, that it would guide not only the oppressed, but the oppressor to understand the truth of the Christian faith and try to rid it of the contradictions of Christians enslaving Christians.

Harmony: That quote was taken from a 1773 petition, and we're actually able to compare that to another petition written in 1777 where the tone is a little bit different. It's a little bit more insistent. Do you think that that change in tone is a result of the changing political climate?

Harvey: I think the Revolution itself helps make the case, and that's what they would do six months after the Declaration of Independence when they write the petition in 1777. They're lifting some of the words right out of that.

"They have in common with all other men, a natural and unaliable right to that freedom which the great parent of the universe that bestowed equally on all mankind." The other part of the political statement, "Which they never forfeit by any compact or agreement whatsoever." Now, that's important because later on when Jefferson writes the Declaration, part of the draft that Jefferson wrote that the southern delegates took out when Jefferson was saying that the king had taken Africans as slaves, but England had never declared war on Africa. So the only way you could by law take slaves is declaring war so that those people would then be slaves.

And so they're pretty much saying the same thing here, when they're saying that, "We never forfeit by any compact or agreement whatsoever what were unjustly dragged by the hand of cruel power." And then they go on to say, "In violation of laws of nature and of nations." So they're very politically aware of what's going on in the world. And they say it very plainly in this petition of 1777.

It's almost like this is the moment they were waiting for. It's as if it wasn't enough to say, "You are enslaving us, that's wrong." They needed something concrete. They needed to be able to point out the values of the colonists, the revolutionaries and say, "If this is your value, you are not applying that to us." You're saying you despise being enslaved. Now I think they say it somewhere at the beginning. "You despise being enslaved by the British but you are enslaving us." So it was a perfect opportunity to have leverage for free black and enslaved community to be able to, in essence, symbolically, to put up a mirror. Just to put up a mirror and say, "You're about freedom and liberty and man's natural rights. Let me put this mirror up so you can look back at yourself and see if you truly believe what you're saying or are you only applying that just to yourself."

Harmony: One of my favorite aspects of these petitions is that it shows the power of the written word. How did literacy in the English language end up being a tool that helped the enslaved population?

Harvey: Literacy was important in a number of ways. One, literacy showed that, symbolically for African Americans, they were not savages. That they were not heathens and capable of civilization because there were some who said, "You know, they can't even learn." So that was one.

Two, there were some literate Africans who came over, but they were Muslims and they were writing in Arabic. So that didn't count on one hand, but it did show that they were capable of literacy on the other hand. And so literacy and education has always been one of the foundations even going up to the Civil Rights movement of African American culture and values because that was something that was for the most part denied.

And you don't need everybody to be literate to have a movement. Because even the founding fathers and the gentry were about 1 or 2 percent and they were the ones who were leading the movement and a small percent of the white population could read, so you don't need everybody to be able to read and write in order to have a movement. Sometimes it doesn't take everyone to be literate, but it takes just the right amount of people who can generate and collect the ideas of many and put them into these powerful words we see here in the Boston Petition.

Harmony: We're talking in February, in Black History Month, and this is a time when we reflect on Civil Rights and the history of Civil Rights. I think these artifacts are particularly interesting in showing that there's a continuum of Civil Rights activism and you can date it back to 1773 and earlier.

Harvey: African Americans were able to take advantage of something that was very British, which was the right to protest. If they could not exercise that, we probably wouldn't have these petitions. They probably would have felt "Oh, we can't even go to the court with the petition." But part of a British tradition is that you have the right to protest. And prior to these petitions there were blacks who were protesting by suing their masters for their freedom, particularly in the North.

And then it developed, it seems like, you know, as the free blacks and slaves starting gathering their resources together they probably said, "Well, if we can win in these courts, why don't we take it another step. Let's go to the courts ourselves." And it seems like sometimes movements start with a small individual or a small group who are trying to achieve a goal for themselves or for their families, but then it can unintentionally mushroom into something much bigger.

And it happens throughout history. It's like people will protest whether it's written, whether it's some other form of protest, but you never know what the outcome of that will be. So I would imagine that back then the way that they wrote it, it's like to me, the way it sounds it sounds like they're saying, "We're going to write this, I really don't think they're going to do it, but we're going to write it, we're going to ask. You just don't know if you don't ask and we have the right to protest. What can they do, maybe they can arrest us? Maybe they can track us down." And it's like, Llet's do it, somebody is going to have to take a stand, we're going to take a stand."

And they probably knew there was no law against them protesting and they'll present it to the court. So I guess it's like a chess game. "Here's our first move, and we'll see what happens from there." But I think the important thing is that they took action and because of that we have this document today. It's not very well known by many people, but I think it should be because I think you can definitely make a connection between Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights movement to the beginning of the American Revolution and the ideas of the Revolution and man's natural rights being a part of what it is to be American.

Harmony: Harvey, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Harvey: You're welcome.