Four former slaves from North Carolina became the first African Americans to petition Congress in 1797. In the winter of 1799–1800, two of these black activists joined sixty-nine others in a second petition. Scholars have long recognized the symbolic importance of these petitions, but their background, creation, and reception remain poorly understood. Historians generally frame them in negative terms, mistakenly assuming that white abolitionists did not support the black petitioners and incorrectly asserting that Congress determined African Americans lacked the First Amendment right of petition. This article reevaluates the efforts and influence of these early black petitioners by drawing on previously unused manuscript evidence, including rough drafts of both petitions and congressional committee reports. The former slaves found allies in Philadelphia’s autonomous black institutions and the Quakers’ Philadelphia Meeting for Sufferings. Moreover, the House of Representatives formally received the second petition and addressed some of the black activists’ concerns by both passing the Slave Trade Act of 1800 and defeating or modifying proposals that would have eroded the rights of free black citizens. These episodes demonstrate the early abolitionist movement’s interracial character and political influence despite racial prejudice and the Constitution’s proslavery provisions.

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pp. 109-144
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