Letter of Cato and Petition by “the negroes who obtained freedom by the late act,” in Postscript to the Freeman’s Journal, September 21, 1781
The elimination of slavery in northern states like Pennsylvania was slow and hard-fought. A bill passed in 1780 began the slow process of eroding slavery in the state, but a proposal just one year later would have erased that bill and furthered the distance between slavery and freedom. The action of black Philadelphians and others succeeded in defeating this measure. In this letter to the black newspaper, Philadelphia Freedom’s Journal, a formerly enslaved man uses the rhetoric of the American Revolution to attack American slavery.
I AM a poor negro, who with myself and children have had the good fortune to get my freedom, by means of an act of assembly passed on the first of March 1780, and should now with my family be as happy a set of people as any on the face of the earth, but I am told the assembly are going to pass a law to send us all back to our masters. Why dear Mr. Printer, this would be the cruelest act that ever a sett of worthy good gentlemen could be guilty of. To make a law to hang us all, would be merciful, when compared with this law; for many of our masters would treat us with unheard of barbarity, for daring to take the advantage (as we have done) of the law made in our favor.—Our lots in slavery were hard enough to bear: but having tasted the sweets of freedom, we should now be miserable indeed.—Surely no Christian gentlemen can be so cruel! I cannot believe they will pass such a law.—I have read the act which made me free, and I always read it with joy—and I always dwell with particular pleasure on the following words, spoken by the assembly in the top of the said law. “We esteem it a particular blessing granted to us, that we are enabled this day to add one more step to universal civilization, by removing as much as possible the sorrows of those, who have lived in undeserved bondage, and from which, by the assumed authority of the kings of Great-Britain, no effectual legal relief could be obtained.“ See it was the king of Great- Britain that kept us in slavery before.—Now surely, after saying so, it cannot be possible for them to make slaves of us again—nobody, but the king of England can do it—and I sincerely pray, that he may never have it in his power.—It cannot be, that the assembly will take from us the liberty they have given, because a little further they go on and say, ”we conceive ourselves, at this particular period, extraordinarily called upon, by the blessings which we have received, to make manifest the sincerity of our professions and to give a substantial proof of our gratitude.” If after all this, we, who by virtue of this very law (which has those very words in it which I have copied,) are now enjoying the sweets of that “substantial proof of gratitude” I say if we should be plunged back into slavery, what must we think of the meaning of all those words in the beginning of the said law, which seem to be a kind of creed respecting slavery? But what is most serious than all, what will our great father think of such doings? But I pray that he may be pleased to tern the hearts of the honorable assembly from this cruel law; and that he will be pleased to make us poor blacks deserving of his mercies.
Letter of Cato and Petition by “the negroes who obtained freedom by the late act,” Postscript to the Freeman’s Journal, September 21, 1781 in Library Company of Philadelphia, “Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic.”