Three years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, twenty enslaved African-born men, all captured “when but children” and then living in Portsmouth, submitted their own petition for liberation from tyranny. Signed in Portsmouth on November 12, 1779 and formally submitted to the New Hampshire state legislature then meeting in Exeter on April 25, 1780, the petition from “natives of Africa, now forcibly detained in slavery” states “that Freedom is an inherent right of the human species not to be surrendered, but by consent.” Adapting the revolutionary ideology of the times to the cause of their own emancipation, the statement goes on to argue the case against chattel slavery, harnessing both logic and irony to the moment at hand.
“From what authority they [the slave owners] assume the power to dispose of our lives, freedom, and liberty we wish to know,” they stated. Did their authority stem from “the sacred volumes of Christianity?” “From the volumes of the law?” “From the volumes of nature?” The petitioners could find no such authority for slavery in those places, leaving “custom” as the sole remaining source. “If so,” they said, “let that custom be abolished which is not founded in nature, reason, nor religion.”
Reviewing the names of the 20 signatories, historians Mark Sammons and Valerie Cunningham speculate that the petition was drafted by members of the “Negro Court,” a community institution which chose its own leaders and was responsible for a degree of self-governance within the Black community.
The petition was accepted by the NH House of Representatives and its text published in the New Hampshire Gazette, a local paper, on July 15, 1780. But the legislators tabled any hearing on the petition. It wasn’t until 1857 that the state legislature implicitly abolished slavery by declaring, “No person, because of decent (sic), should be disqualified from becoming a citizen of the state.” The state explicitly endorsed an end to slavery by ratifying the 13th Amendment on July 1, 1865.
The 1779 petition for liberation returned to the public eye more than a century later when Senator Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth filed SB187, “posthumously emancipating 20 African-American New Hampshire slaves.” This time, the petition met favor in both Senate and House and was signed into law by Governor Maggie Hassan on July 11, 2013. No mention was made of the hundreds of African Americans who had remained enslaved across the state of New Hampshire for 86 more years after the original writing of this petition.
For more information, read Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage by Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham (UNH Press, 2004) and visit the Black Heritage Trail of NH.