1797 US Congress refuses to accept 1st petition from African American

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The Making of African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865

“a direct violation of the declared
fundamental principles of the Constitution”
to Congress from four free African Americans
to protect freed slaves from capture and resale
in the House of Representatives to consider the
petition and the vote to deny its hearing in committee
♦ 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*

In 1775 North Carolina made it illegal to free slaves unless approved by a county court. Over the next decade, however, “persons
from religious motives,” mostly members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), continued to free their slaves, in some cases buying
slaves in order to free them. In response, North Carolina passed another law in 1788 allowing the capture and sale of any former
slave who had been freed without court approval, with twenty percent of the sale price going to the person who reported the illegal
manumission. Many freed African Americans fled the state to avoid being captured and sold back into slavery.
Four such men, living in the North after being freed in North Carolina, petitioned the U.S. Congress in 1797 to consider the plight of
these former slaves and adopt “some remedy for an evil of such magnitude.” Was not this act of North Carolina, they asked, “a
direct violation of the declared fundamental principles of the Constitution?” Below are excerpts from the men’s petition (written by
the black religious leader Absalom Jones) and the congressmen’s debate on sending the petition to a committee for consideration,
as recorded in the Annals of Congress, 1797.

Mr. SWANWICK presented the following petition: To the President, Senate, and House of Representatives.
The Petition and Representation of the under-named Freemen, respectfully showeth: —

THAT, being of African descent, late inhabitants and natives of North Carolina, to you only,
under God, can we apply with any hope of effect, for redress of our grievances, having
been compelled to leave the State wherein we had a right of residence, as freemen liberated
under the hand and seal of humane and conscientious masters, the validity of which act of
justice, in restoring us to our native right of freedom, was confirmed by judgment of the
Superior Court of North Carolina, wherein it was brought to trial; yet, not long after this decision, a law of that State was enacted, under which men of cruel disposition, and void of
just principle, received countenance and authority in violently seizing, imprisoning, and
selling into slavery, such as had been so emancipated; whereby we were reduced to the
necessity of separating from some of our nearest and most tender connexions, and of
seeking refuge in such parts of the Union where more regard is paid to the public
declaration in favor of liberty and the common right of man, several hundreds, under our
circumstances, having in consequence of the said law, been hunted day and night, like
beasts of the forest, by armed men with dogs, and made a prey of as free and lawful
late: in the
recent past
petition for
redress of
one of the
five rights
by the First
(Bill of Rights),
i.e., to petition
Congress if
one’s rights
have been
violated by the

Among others thus exposed, I, JUPITER NICHOLSON, of Perquimans county, N.C.,
after being set free by my master, Thomas Nicholson, and having been about two years
employed as a seaman in the service of Zachary Nickson, on coming on shore, was pursued

  • National Humanities Center, 2007: nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/. In Annals of the Congress of the United States, 4th Congress, 2nd Session
    [March 1795-March 1797] VI (Washington, DC: 1849), pp. 2015-2024; online in American Memory (Library of Congress) at memory.loc.gov/ammem/
    amlaw/lwac.html. In the public domain. Sidenotes, some paragraphing, and bracketed comments (except names of previous speakers) added by NHC.
    Image from petition from Annals of Congress. Complete image credits at nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/imagecredits.htm.