In conjunction with a new play coming up at the Old State House - entitled The Petition - we’d like to briefly discuss what petitioning meant for people living in Colonial Massachusetts. While today voting is seen as the number one way to be involved in the political process, this was not always the case. Residents did vote to elect members of the Massachusetts General Court (the legislative branch at the time), but with voting restrictions encompassing religion, property ownership, age, and free status, plus strongly enforced community assumptions about race and sex, the right to vote was not open to the majority of the population. What was accessible, instead, was the right to petition.
The right to petition in Massachusetts is first clearly documented in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, a document written by 1641 by Nathaniel Ward which was important for shaping Massachusetts law well into the future. This document reads:
“every man whether Inhabitant or fforreiner, free or not free shall have libertie to come to any publique Court, Councel, or Towne meeting, and either by speech or writeing to move any lawfull, seasonable, and materiall question, or to present any necessary motion, complaint, petition, Bill or information, whereof that meeting hath proper cognizance, so it be done in convenient time, due order, and respective manner.”
While the laws around this issue took a variety of forms moving forward, the spirit of the idea remained. Even if you were prohibited from voting, you were guaranteed at least this one possible opportunity to be heard.
In the eighty-five years that the Old State House served as the Massachusetts government building, the right to petition was used by thousands of disenfranchised residents to push their government to address issues that were important to them. Even when petitions were unsuccessful, they often laid the groundwork for future efforts that would eventually achieve their goals. The abolition of slavery, for instance, was eventually brought before the courts, but only after political attention had been brought to the issue year after year by free and enslaved black petitioners throughout Massachusetts.
In the lead up to the Revolutionary War, many Patriot leaders used slavery as a rhetorical concept to describe what they saw as oppressive treatment by the British government. Black residents of Massachusetts pushed back against that revolutionary rhetoric and pointed out that what was a metaphorical experience of slavery for the colonists was a much more literal experience for many of them. Originally, it looked like the Patriots might be willing to accept this argument and work to break down the institution of slavery. In 1771, for instance, the Patriot-led Legislature attempted to pass a law banning the slave trade in Massachusetts, only to have the law vetoed by the Royal Governor at the time. Perhaps motivated by this attempt, several petitions presenting anti-slavery arguments were brought before the colonial government in 1773 and 1774, but none of them were successful. Then, the revolution pushed out the colonial government and replaced it with a new government of patriots, who made their priorities clear when they also refused to act on an anti-slavery petition presented in 1777.
The 1777 petition in many ways anticipates the government’s refusal to respond, rebuking leaders for their failure to take action and stating that they are “chargeable with the inconsistancey of acting themselves the part which they condem and oppose in others.” It also strongly asserts that liberty is a “Natural and Unaliable [inalienable] Right… which the Grat Parent of the Unavers hath Bestowed equalley on all menkind.” While this petition would be ignored, this argument would not be forgotten. When slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, it was because Massachusetts established a Bill of Rights stating that “all men are born free and equal,” and the courts determined that this was a right that must be applied to all men, regardless of race.
One of the leaders of this anti-slavery movement was a free black Boston businessman named Prince Hall. Prince Hall was likely involved in the early petitions, is noted by name as one of the authors of the 1777 petition, and in 1788 was part of a petition that brought about the end of the slave trade in Massachusetts. You can hear more about the effort to end slavery in Massachusetts from Prince Hall himself in the play, The Petition. The Petition starts August 12th and will play every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 11 AM, 1 PM, and 3 PM through September 29th.