On Jan. 6, 1773, an African-American slave named Felix delivered a written request to the Massachusetts General Court asking it 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 he wanted to pursue happiness. It’s heartbreaking.
“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.”
It was the beginning of the end of slavery in Massachusetts.
Felix’s missive, deferential and yet passionate, set a pattern for African-Americans who sought freedom through direct appeals to the governor, the legislature and the courts. More bondsmen would petition the Massachusetts government in the next few years: Peter Bestes and ‘other slaves’ on April 20, 1773, ‘A grate number of blackes,’ on May 25, 1774 and a ‘great number of negroes’ on Jan. 13, 1777.
Similar petitions would be filed 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 asking 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’d became the property of the state after their Tory master fled.
The bondsmen’s case was strengthened when the Massachusetts state constitution became effective 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 his bondage was forbidden by the new constitution.
In 1783, Supreme Judicial Court Justice William Cushing agreed. The war had just ended. Cushing noted slavery was brought to America by Europeans.
He wrote, in his decision, “ a different idea has taken place with the people of America, 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 ruled slavery was inconsistent with the constitution’s statement that ‘men are born free and Equal.’ Slavery was effectively abolished in Massachusetts.