Portsmouth slaves petitioned for freedom in 1779

Pivoting off the language in the Declaration of Independence three years earlier, 20 slaves in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, signed and submitted a petition for their freedom to the New Hampshire General Assembly. One of the signers, Prince Whipple, was the slave of William Whipple, a New Hampshire delegate to the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

It’s not known who wrote the petition, but it was signed in November of 1779. The petition was submitted to the General Assembly six months later, in April of 1780. The legislators ordered that it be published in the newspaper “that any person or persons may then appear and shew (sic) cause why the prayer thereof may not be granted.” The New Hampshire Gazette duly published it (pdf copy) on July 15th, 1780, but they added a disclaimer that it was printed for their readers’ “amusement.” The petition lost steam. The General Assembly postponed the hearing they had scheduled and that was the end of that.

This was not the only petition of its kind, of course. Revolutionary fervor spread throughout the colonies making the language of freedom and natural rights common vernacular. Slaves could hardly have heard the words and not applied them to their circumstances, which some might argue were far more aptly described in terms of tyranny and oppression than wealthy colonial leaders’ struggles with the Stamp Act.

The signers of the petition, although slaves, were people of importance in their community, often ranked socially according to the importance of their master. They actually ran a shadow justice system called the Negro Court which adjudicated disputes and punished slaves who committed petty crimes. As property, slaves couldn’t be convicted of crimes in the colonial judiciary, so the Negro Court stepped up to the plate. The members of the bench were elected by the slaves of Portsmouth, and this wasn’t done in secret or even quietly. They were out and proud.

“Arrayed in brilliant clothes, the region’s black population assembled, then processed out of the city center to the outskirts and returned some hours later with festive music and boisterous gunfire to a grand celebration of their newly elected monarch and court,” Cunningham and Sammons wrote.

The court was led by a king — likely a nod to the royalty of tribes in Africa. In the period when the petition was written, the court consisted of “King” Nero Brewster, owned by Col. William Brewster; Viceroy Willie Clarkson, owned by Peirse Clarkson; Sheriff Jock Odiorne and Deputy Pharaoh Shores. […]

“It was a way within slavery to maintain social order and a sense of community,” Watters said. “They replicated the white hierarchy and power structure, and it is obvious that there was at least some cooperation and perhaps even some status within white families of having a slave on the court.”

Fascinating, isn’t it, how complex the social dynamics were?

Judging from the first line of the petition, the Negro Court was certainly involved in it, if not directly responsible.

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 thro’ 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. . . .

Notice that although their forcible and violent removal from Africa is the opening salvo, they fully identify with and support the nascent Revolutionary ideal of the United States as the land of the free.

New Hampshire’s state constitution was passed in 1783. It declared that “all men are born equal and independent,” the same language that led to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts pursued through the courts, but there was nothing specific about manumitting slaves and there are census records indicating the presence of slaves in the state off and on through 1840. Officially, slavery in New Hampshire was only abolished with the passage of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution in 1865.

3 thoughts on “Portsmouth slaves petitioned for freedom in 1779

  1. This is one of the many stories about the “real” America and its revolutionary origins. It is a far cry from the ignorant, comic book versions spouted by the current crop of “patriots” dressed up in their Continental costumes, shouting support for the current conservative agenda in this country.

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