Among the most significant landmark documents in the history of Congress are those from the people themselves. The last clause of the First Amendment provides for the right of the people to “petition the government for a redress of grievances. “Many citizens took this right seriously and Congress received thousands of petitions on a wide variety of topics. The petitions from the first quarter century of the federal government are in a special category because they often helped determine in a very direct manner the development legislation that was of particular concern to private citizens. They reveal as few other records can the popular will in the shaping of the new government. This does not mean, however, that Congress always took the advice of the petitioners and provided the relief sought. In the petition that follows, regarding the Fugitive Slave Act of1793, some relief resulted, but Congress ignored the larger issues of the slave trade. In one of the earliest surviving appeals to Congress from free black citizens, Absalom Jones and seventy fellow signatories confronted the House of Representatives with a potentially divisive issue that most legislators hoped to avoid These Philadelphia residents, fifty of whom signed the petitions with only their marks, maintained that infringements of the Fugitive Slave Act threatened the lives and welfare of African Americans, both slave and free. In seeking revision of the statute and protection for those abducted by slave traders, the petitioners reminded the House of Representatives that the Constitution never referred to slaves or African Americans and by inference extended rights to all Americans regardless of race. While hesitating to call for an immediate end to slavery, the Philadelphia free men of color assumed the responsibility of defending the rights of all African Americans. Their constitutional defense would become a hallmark of black abolitionists in the nineteenth century. The report of the select committee appointed to consider the American slave trade confirmed the illegal abduction of slaves from Maryland and Delaware and recommended revisions in the Fugitive Slave Act. Outside the select committee, few representatives wished to reopen the inflammatory issues of the internal slave trade an federal protection of slave property. The House, meeting in the Committee of the Whole and citing the Constitution’s prohibition on ending the slave trade before 1808, declined any action on a subject which the majority concluded had ”atendency to create disquiet and jealousy. “This determination to avoid sectional division led the House to reject or ignore the growing number of anti-slavery petitions that Congress received in the first five decades of the nineteenth century.
A PETITION OF ABSALOM JONES AND OTHERS
[Philadelphia 30th of December 1799]
To the President, Senate, and House of Representatives of the United States.
The petition of the People of Colour, Freemen, within the City and Suburbs of Philadelphia:
Humbly sheweth That thankful to God our Creator and to the Government under which we live, for the blessing and benefit extended to us in the enjoyment of our natural right to Liberty, and the protection of our Persons and property from the oppression and violence, to which so great a number of like colour and National Descent are subjected; We feel ourselves bound from a sense of these blessings to continue in our respective allotments, and to lead honest and peaceable lives, rendering due submission to the Laws, and exciting and encouraging each other thereto, agreeable to the uniform advice of our real friends of every denomination. Yet, while we feel impress’d with grateful sensations for the Providential favours we ourselves enjoy, 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, believing them to be objects of representation in your public Councils, in common with ourselves and every other class of Citizens within the Jurisdiction of the United States, according to the declared design of the present Constitution, formed by the
General Convention and ratified by the different States, as set forth in the preamble thereto in the following words - viz. - ‘We the People of the United States in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestick tranquility, provide for the Common Defence, and to secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and posterity, do ordain “ We apprehend this solemn Compact is violated by a trade carried on in a clandestine manner to the Coast of Guinea, and another equally wicked practiced openly by Citizens of some of the Southern States upon the waters of Maryland and Delaware: Men sufficiently callous as to qualify for the brutal purpose, are employed in kidnapping those of our Brethren that are free, and purchasing others of such as claim a property in them; thus these poor helpless victims like droves of Cattle are seized, fettered, and hurried into places provided for this most horrid traffic, such as dark cellars and garrets, as is notorious at Northwest Fork[,} Chester-town, Eastown, and divers other places; After a sufficient number is obtained, they are forced on board vessels, crouded under hatches, and without the least commiseration, left to deplore the sad separation of the dearest ties in nature, husband from wife and Parents from children, thus pack’d together they are transported to Georgia and other places, and there inhumanly exposed to sale: Can any Commerce, trade, or transaction, so detestably shock the feelings of Man, or degrade the dignity of his nature equal to this, and how increasingly is the evil aggravated when practiced in a Land, high in profession of the benign doctrines of our blessed Lord, who taught his followers to do unto others as they would they should do unto them!
grossly abused class of the human Species, (700,000 of whom it is said are now in unconditional bondage in these States,) but, conscious of the rectitude of our motives in a concern so nearly affecting us, and so essentially interesting to real welfare o this Country, we cannot but address you as Guardians of our Civil Rights, and Patrons of Equal and National Liberty, hoping you will view the subject in an impartial, unprejudiced light. We do not ask for the immediate emancipation of all, knowing that the degraded State of many and their want of education, would greatly disqualify for such a change; yet humbly desire you may exert every means in your power to undo the heavy burdens, and prepare the way for the oppressed to go free, that every yoke may be broken.
The Law not long since enacted by Congress called the Fugitive Bill, is, in its execution found to be attended with circumstances peculiarly hard and distressing, for many of our afflicted Brethren in order to avoid the barbarities wantonly exercised upon them, or thro fear of being carried off by those Men-stealers, have been forced to seek refuge by flight; they are then hunted by armed Men, and under colour of this law, cruelly treated, shot, or brought back in chains to those who have no just claim upon them.
hi 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 o f the Community, we fervently pray.
Petition of Absalom Jones and others, December 30, 1799 4~HR6A-F4.2. Jan. 2, 1800),
Records of the U. S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233, National Archives,
Washington, DC. Reprinted in Raymond W. Smock, ed Landmark Documents on the U. S.
Congress, CQ Press, 1999.
Petition of Absalom Jones and Ohers, 1799 Many Americans took seriously the provision of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution which provides that the people have a right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In the early decades of the new American government thousands of petitions arrived in Congress from citizens in all parts of the country.
The Petition of Absalom Jones and Others, December 30, 1799, is one of the earliest surviving petitions sent to Congress by free blacks living in Philadelphia. Complaining that the Fugitive Slave Act was unfair to both slaves and free blacks because “People of Colour” could be the arbitrary victims of agents of slave holders who kidnapped free blacks and slaves alike under protection of the Fugitive Slave Act.
The petition is particularly important because of the arguments it employed. It drew on the meaning of the Declaration of lndependence, the language of the Preamble of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. If slave traders and their agents could hunt men down and return them to slavery, or enslave free blacks, then the blessings of liberty were denied. The petitioners claim a “natural right to Liberty”, an idea derived from the Declaration of lndependence. They called on Congress to be the “Guardians of our Civil Rights.” The petitioners also raised the important point that blacks should be considered citizens and be protected by the law. These ideas, derived from the basic documents of the founding of this nation, would continue to be used throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as hallmarks of the struggle to end slavery and establish citizenship for African Americans.
Who Was Absalom Jones? Seventy free blacks from the Philadelphia area signed this petition, led by Absalom Jones (1746-1 818). Jones was the first African American priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church. He was born a slave in Delaware, and lived and worked in Philadelphia, where he was able to buy his freedom in 1784. He, along with Richard Allen, another signer of this petition, were prominent religious leaders among Philadelphia’s African American population and leaders of the movement to abolish slavery.
Absalom Jones, (1746-1818) born in slavery in Delaware, was sold at the age of 16 to a Philadelphia shop keeper. He attended a night school run by Quakers. At the age of2O he married a slave and purchased her freedom with his own earnings. In 1784, when he was 38 years old, he was able to purchase his own freedom. He was active as a lay reader at Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, until the numbers of blacks that he helped bring into the church alarmed the white vestry, who decided to segregate the black members into a second-story gallery. The black members walked out.
Jones founded the Free African Society with his friend Richard Allen, in 1787, the same year the Constitution was drafted. The society members paid dues to aid the needy. The group built its own church, The African Church, which was completed in 1794. The church was admitted to the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, as the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Jones was ordained a priest in 1802. Richard Allen was the founder of African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816.