Freedom Petition Submitted by Enslaved People to the New Hampshire State Legislature in Portsmouth on Nov. 12, 1779

This was one of many petitions submitted to the New Hampshire General Assembly in 1779, appealing for enslaved people’s liberation.
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 3, 5 and 10.

To the Honorable the Council and House of Representatives of said State now siting at Exeter in and for Said State (New Hampshire) 

The petition of Nero Brewster, and others, natives of Africa, now forcibly detained in slavery, in said state, most humbly theweth, That the God of Nature gave them life and freedom, upon terms of the most perfect equality with other men; that freedom is an inherent right of the human species, not to be surrendered, but by consent, for the sake of social life; that private or public tyranny and slavery, are alike detestable to minds conscious of the equal dignity of human nature; that in power and authority of individuals, derived solely from a principle of coersion, against the wills of individuals, and to dispose of their persons and properties, consists the completed idea of private and political slavery; that all men being amenable to the Deity for the ill improvement of the blessings of his providence, they hold themselves in duty bound, strenuously to exert every faculty of their minds, . . .; that through ignorance & brutish violence of their native countrymen and by similar designs of others, (who ought to have taught them better) & by the avarice of both, they, while but children, and incapable of self defense, whose infancy might have prompted protection, were seized, imprisoned, and transported from their native country, where (tho' ignorance and inchristianity prevailed) they were born free to a country, where (tho' knowledge, christianity and freedom, are their boast) they are compelled, and their unhappy posterity, to drag on their lives in miserable servitude.

Permit again your humble slaves to lay before this honorable Assembly, some of those grievances which they daily experience and feel; tho' fortune hath dealt out our portions with rugged hand, yet hath she [kindled?] in the disposal of our persons to those who claim us as their property; of them, as masters, we do not complain; but, from what authority they assume the power to dispose of our lives, freedom and property, we would wish to know.—Is it from the sacred volumes of christianity? There we believe it not to be found! but here hath the cruel hand of slavery made us incompetent judges; but those, we are told, are founded in reason and justice; it cannot be found there! It is from the volumes of nature? No, here we can read with others! Of this knowledge, slavery cannot wholly deprive us; here, we know we ought to be free agents! here, we feel the dignity of human nature! here, we feel the passions and desires of men, tho' check'd by the rod of slavery! here, we feel a just equality! here, we know that the God of nature made us free! Is their authority assumed from customs? If so, let that custom be abolished, which is not founded in nature, reason nor religion. Should the humanity and benevolence of this honorable Assembly restore us of that state of liberty of which we have been so long deprived we conceive that those, who are our present masters, will not be sufferers by our liberation, as we have most of us spent our whole strength and the prime of our lives in their service; and as freedom inspires a noble, confidence, and gives the mind an emulation to vie in the noblest efforts of enterprise, and as justice and humanity are the result of your deliberations, we fondly hope that the eye of pity and the heart of justice may commiserate our situation and put us upon the equality of free-men, and give us an opportunity of evincing to the world our love of freedom, by exerting ourselves in her cause, in opposing, the efforts of tyranny and oppression over the country in which we ourselves have been so injuriously enslaved. 

Therefore, your humble slaves most devoutly pray, for the sake of insured liberty, for the sake of justice, humanity, and the rights of mankind; for the honor of religion, and by all that is dear, that your honors would graciously interpose in our behalf, and enact such laws and regulations as in your wisdom we may regain our liberty and be ranked in the class of free agents, and that the name of slave may no more be heard in a land gloriously contending for the sweets of freedom; and your humble slaves as in duty bound will ever pray. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://sos.nh.gov/Papers.aspx.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What are the stated similarities and differences between Africa and the United States?
    Similarities: Those who sold them into slavery (“their native countrymen”) and the white enslavers (“others”) both acted in “avarice” or greed in how they captured and enslaved innocent people.
    Differences: the white enslavers are criticized, as they “ought to have taught them better.” This implies that they should have showed the Africans not to enslave and sell their fellow people. The white Americans are described as “boast[ing]” of their “knowledge, christianity, and freedom” whereas Africa has “ignorance and inchristianity”.
  2. Question
    How do they use religion to support their argument?
    They say that God has given them both “life and freedom.” By identifying the white Americans as Christian, they are also charging them with acting morally. This petition states that the “blessings of his providence” make the white enslavers “duty bound” to act morally.
  3. Question
    In what ways do the petition’s authors make reference to the American Revolution?
    The petition makes reference to ideals of the American Revolution, such as rights to their “lives, freedom, and property”; slavery violating “the dignity of human nature”; justice; liberty; etc. They also make believe emancipation in the American colonies would show the world that they are truly committed to fighting for freedom, as slavery is instead evidence of “tyranny and oppression.”
  4. Question
    How do the authors describe their enslavers (or relationship with their enslavers)? What may be the reason for this?
    They say they will not turn on their enslavers: “our present masters will not be sufferers of our liberation.”
    Answers may vary: Fear of slave rebellion/violence was prevalent. This may have been a way to calm those fears, as well as assure the legislature that emancipation wouldn’t greatly disrupt the economy, societal relations, or “customs.”
Reveal Answers
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