By Claire Morgan
This primary source is a petition that submitted to the New-Haven Gazette, a Connecticut newspaper, in 1788. An editor’s note precedes the petition, stating that this is a republished work. The original appeared in the Providence Gazette, a Rhode Island newspaper, in 1774. The petition is addressed to the Connecticut members of the Sons of Liberty, an unofficial but prominent revolutionary group. In 1774, when the petition was originally published, Connecticut had the largest population of African-Americans in New England (6.3 percent of the state’s population). The petition is presented by a man named Bristo (or Bristol) Lambee on behalf of a larger number of African Americans.
There is no official record on Bristo Lambee, but he was likely a free African American man living in New England. We can assume that he was educated and literate. It is possible that he was the author of another antislavery essay published in the Massachusetts Spy, which uses similar arguments and language and was published anonymously by “A Son of Africa.” This source can give us valuable insight into the ideas and arguments that African-Americans brought to the antislavery debate and how this debate was shaped by the Revolutionary War. It also, importantly, depicts African Americans taking an active part in their own history.
[Republished by desire.]
To the Sons of Liberty in Connecticut.
The humble Petition of a Number of poor Africans
Your characters, as Sons of Liberty, oblige us to think you the most zealous assertors of the natural rights and liberties of mankind in general; where-in we shall make bold a little to press you with our unhappy circumstances as slaves, begging your kind exertions on the behalf of your petitioners, for their deliverance from a state of unnatural servitude and bondage.
Your petitioners apprehend that liberty, being founded on the law of nature; is as necessary to the happiness of an African as to the happiness of an Englishman; and as much to be desired by the former as it can possibly be by the latter; and that we, not-withstanding our present state of slavery, have, in common with other men, a natural right to be free, and without molestation to enjoy such property as we by our honest industry may acquire; and that no person can have any just claim to our services, unless we have by the laws of the land forfeited them, or by voluntary compact made ourselves servants; neither of which is our case– But we were by the cruel hand of power, some of us dragg’d from our native country, and forced to forsake the dearest connections in life; whilst others in infancy have been stolen from the bosom of their tender parents, and brought to this distant land to be enslaved, and to serve like a horse in a mill. –Thus are we deprived of everything that tends to render life even tolerable, much less desirable.
The endearing ties of husband, wife, parent, child and friend, we are generally strangers to in our state of slavery, being entirely at the controul of our masters respecting the formation of such connections, and when any of those connections are formed among us, how are the pleasures embittered by the cruel consideration of our slavery, and the thoughts of our being separated at the will of our masters! — Thus are we by our deplorable situation in life, rendered incapable of shewing our obedience to the supreme Governor of the Universe… for how can a slave who is under the absolute controul of his master, perform the duties of husband, wife, parent or child?… So contrary is slavery to the genius of Christianity, that we are by our situation often hindred from the observance of the laws of God, and consequently deprived of an equal benefit in the laws of the land with other subjects; — as we are informed there is no law of this colony whereby our masters can hold us in slavery, unless mere custom (however ill founded) be deemed a law, and that the charter of this colony puts us on a level with other men, respecting freedom and all its attendant blessings. Custom therefore must be the only tyrant that keeps us in bondage, while the charter and the super-added laws of the colony are blameless. –We are not insensible, that if we should be liberated, and allowed by law to recover pay for our past services, our masters interests would be greatly damnified: but we claim no rigid justice– we ask no more in compensation for our past toils and sufferings, than only to be released from our present confinement, and allowed the free use of our natural rights and privileges.
There have been sundry petitions of this tenor to the legislative body of this colony for our relief; but as those in authority generally consist of such men as are interested in slavery; and though we mean not to reflect, as interest sometimes blinds the best of men, yet we have very little reason to expect any relief from that quarter, unless the common people, fraught with the manly feelings of the foul, should undertake, and use their influence in our behalf.
We would therefore humbly pray, that whilst you are consulting, asserting, and maintaining your own natural rights against the arbitrary designs of those who would subject you to slavery, that you would think on our unhappy case, who have been long groaning under the insupportable burden. –We are poor ignorant creatures, by reason of our circumstances as slaves, and know not what method to devise, being shut out from the use of law and the benefit of petitioning in a legal way; being by unnatural custom called the property of others, although a part of the same species of beings which alone can be called proprietors on earth; by which the order of nature is inverted — Proprietor and property confounded.
Our case being thus, we would earnestly intreat of you to hear our cries, and exert yourselves in our behalf, and consult such measures as you shall judge most feasible, in order to facilitate our deliverance, and so receive the grateful acknowledgments of thousands now unhappy. And your petitioners in duty bound, shall ever pray.
Signed Bristo Lambee
At the desire and in behalf of many others.
- What are the various arguments that Lambee makes for the freedom of enslaved people in this petition?
- This petition first appeared in print in 1774, before the official start of the Revolutionary War. Why might it have been reprinted “At the desire and in behalf of many others” in the New-Haven Gazette in 1788, years after the war had ended?
- Why might Lambee separate law from custom when discussing where the blame of slavery lies?
- Why did Lambee state that enslaved people would not ask for compensation for their labor upon being granted their freedom?
“To the Sons of Liberty in Connecticut.” New-Haven Gazette, and Connecticut Magazine (New Haven, Connecticut) III, no. 43, October 30, 1788: . Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers.
Dianne Wheaton Cappiello, “‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, There is Freedom’: Black Spirituality and the Rise of the Antislavery Movement, 1740-1841.” PhD diss. Cornell University, 2011.