American Revolution and the Civil War
During the American Revolution and the Civil War, tens of thousands of Southerners petitioned their legislatures for redress of grievances. Southerners petitioned to eliminate poll taxes, expand the suffrage, and protect their rights as citizens. The petitions were written on a wide range of topics including manumission, colonization, religion, laws governing slaves, racial mixing, and black military service by a wide range of individuals. They included Southerners slaveholders, non-slaveholders, blacks, whites, men, and women, slaves and freemen. The legislative petitions reveal the grim and brutal nature of human bondage, the fears of whites who lived in areas of large concentrations of blacks, and the workings of the complicated legal system designed to control blacks. They analyze the social, religious, and economic strivings of free people of color in different settings during different time periods.
The blacks who were not enslaved involved themselves in a wide range of occupations that included blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, shoemakers, barbers, draymen, tailors, seamstresses, laundresses, and cooks, among others; and some became farm owners, planters, and slaveholders. They present how slave owners sought to control their human chattel; how they feared slave gatherings, conspiracies, and possible slave revolts; and how they worried about the consequences of a literate slave population, looked upon blacks as a “species of property,” and castigated free Negroes as idle, thieving, and unmanageable.
They reveal how some slaveholders expressed serious misgivings about the “peculiar institution,” argued that God was no respecter of persons, and asserted that freedom was the natural and inalienable right of man. The petitions not only tell us about the attitudes of whites, both slaveholders and non slaveholders, and how these attitudes changed during various periods in different parts of the South; they also articulate the values of different groups of blacks: talented slaves, quasi-free bondsmen, free blacks, and affluent free persons of color.
Another area where the petitions offer an in-depth view of southern life concerns the workings of what contemporaries called the internal slave economy.
These bondsmen were at least ostensibly under the control of their masters, but the petitions also reveal how small groups of bonds people moved into the twilight zone between slavery and freedom. Most of these slaves were skilled artisans who undertook “work on their own account at sometimes less than one half the rates that a regular bred white Mechanic could offer to do it.”
In South Carolina, a group of white artisans complained about slave owners who permitted their house servants to let out repair and building contracts during the summer months. These slaves, they said, refused to hire white artisans, employing instead slave and free black carpenters, joiners, and brick- and stonemasons, who in turn maintained work gangs of self-hired slaves.
The burglary case against Jupiter Wise is a clear depiction of how black communities were indicted in criminal activities revealing some form of slavery since they were colonized. During judgment, he was sentenced two 7 years confinement at His Majesty’s Island in West Indies. His attempt to escape prison was in the first case successful but was later recaptured in Nova Scotia making their case more serious.
During the hearing of his case, James Steven, one of the witnesses against Jupiter stated that Jupiter has fled into Michael McDonald house in Charlotte town and left with a Jugg full of Rum approximately two Gallons hid it behind Mr Spence’s house and later in the Little Fowl House in Mr Spence’s yard until Sunday evening. On the said Sunday, Jupiter and three other people met at Raineys Hutt and drank some little Rum he had when Jupiter offered to bring more from Mr. Spence’s Yard, after they were done, The informant offered to invite more people at his place to enjoy the rum the coming evening. The friends who were majorly black were set cards prepared by Master Stukely Burns and delivered to the friends.
While Jupiter and most other slaves remained legally in bondage, the state petitions also capture, perhaps better than any other primary source, the black quest for freedom. Slave mothers bought themselves or their children; slave fathers purchased wives or family members; and slave children, upon reaching adulthood, purchased parents, relatives, and friends most notably black women who played a significant role in purchasing relatives and presenting emancipation petitions.
The ability of some slaves to acquire property can also be traced in various petitions most notably in the South, growing numbers of slaves acquired property of one type or another. There are petitions from free persons of color who owned slaves, controlled large tracts of land, and attempted to conceal their African heritage; there are petitions from slaves who, in economic terms, were better off than their white neighbors; there are even petitions from free blacks who wished to return to slavery, the documents available portray, in vivid and personal terms, the contrasts, ambivalences, contradictions, ironies, and ambiguities that comprise southern history.
The first item of a petition is typically a salutation to the legislative body to which it is addressed. In most cases petitions were handwritten, but sometimes a printed petition form that left sufficient room for signatures was used. In the case of handwritten petitions, the formality of language and script can serve as an indicator of the petitioner’s level of literacy. The body of the petition generally contains an explanation of the reasons for its submission. Very often, petitioners had a grievance of some type that they wanted to bring to the attention of their state legislators. On other occasions, an individual sought an exemption from a particular state law. Sometimes, a group of citizens submitted an accompanying petition to support another petitioner’s request. In each of these instances petitioners sought to convince the legislature of the justness of their cause and the necessity for legislative action.
In addition to a statement of grievances, a petition often includes a proposal for corrective action or remedy. Unlike today, it was common for an individual petitioner to ask the legislature to enact a law that would solve a personal dilemma; such a law is formally known as a “private” act or statute. Some petitions were broader in scope, requesting that the legislature pass a “public” statute affecting a state’s entire population, such as petitions for the abolition of slavery. In many instances petitioners asked for direct intervention by state legislatures into matters that today are considered judicial responsibilities, such as the settlement of probate estates, marital relations, business arrangements, or rights of citizenship. In a few instances one or two people signed on behalf of a large groups of petitioners. If a petitioner was illiterate, someone else wrote the petition and signed for them. Some petitions conclude with a “docket page,” indicating its official receipt by the state legislature. The docket page identifies the date of submission, the addressee, and the number of petitioners as recorded by a legislative clerk.