On Jan. 6, 1773, an African-American slave named Felix delivered a written request to the Massachusetts General Court. In it, he asked to end slavery.
Felix’s petition reflected the talk circulating in Boston just before the American Revolution. Talk of freedom and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Little is known of Felix, but his petition, simply signed ‘Felix,’ shows his desire to pursue happiness. It’s heartbreaking.
No Wives, No Children
“We have no Property,” he wrote. “We have no Wives. No Children. We have no City. No Country. But we have a Father in Heaven, and we are determined, as far as his Grace shall enable us, and as far as our degraded contemptuous Life will admit, to keep all his Commandments.”
Those words began the end of slavery in Massachusetts.
Felix’s missive, deferential and yet passionate, set a pattern for African-Americans who sought freedom. They did it through direct appeals to the governor, the legislature and the courts.
More bondsmen would then petition the Massachusetts government in the next few years. They included Peter Bestes and ‘other slaves’ on April 20, 1773. They also included ‘A grate number of blackes,’ on May 25, 1774 and a ‘great number of negroes’ on Jan. 13, 1777.
Enslaved African-Americans subsequently filed petitions throughout the colonies. King Nero Brewster and 18 slaves petitioned the New Hampshire legislature for freedom in 1779. That same year, black men in the Connecticut towns of Stratford and Fairfield signed a petition. It asked the General Assembly in Hartford if slavery wasn’t inconsistent with “the present claims of the united States.” Some Connecticut slaves petitioned for freedom because they became the property of the state after their Loyalist masters fled.
Free and Equal
The bondsmen’s case then got stronger when the Massachusetts state constitution took effect on Oct. 25, 1780. It states, “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.”
Ten years after Felix delivered that first petition, a Boston slave named Quock Walker sued for his freedom. His lawyers argued the new constitution forbade his bondage.
In 1783, Supreme Judicial Court Justice William Cushing agreed. The Americans had just won the Revolutionary War. And Cushing noted the Europeans who lost the war brought slavery to America.
He wrote, in his decision, “a different idea has taken place with the people of America.”
That idea, wrote Cushing, was “more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses–features) has inspired all the human race.”
He then ruled slavery contradicted the constitution’s statement that ‘men are born free and Equal.’ And thus his decision effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts.
This story was updated in 2022.