Cato's letter and petition to the Pennsylvania Assembly

I AM a poor negro, who with myfelf and children have had the good fortune to get my freedom, by means of an act of affembly paffed on the firft of March 1780, and fhould now with my family be as happy a fet of people as any on the face of the earth; but I am told the affembly are going to pafs a law to fend us all back to our mafters. Why dear Mr. Printer, this would be the cruelleft act that ever a fett of worthy good gentlemen could be guilty of. To make a law to hang us all, would be merciful, when compared with this law; for many of our mafters would treat us with unheard of barbarity, for daring to take the advantage (as we have done) of the law made in our favor. --Our lots in flavery were hard enough to bear: but having tafted the fweets of freedom, we fhould now be miferable indeed. --Surely no chriftian gentlemen can be fo cruel! I cannot believe they will pafs fuch a law. --I have read the act which made me free, and I always read it with joy--and I always dwell with particular pleafure on the following words, fpoken by the affembly in the top of the faid law. "We efteem it a particular bleffing granted to us, that we are enabled this day to add one more ftep to univerfal civilization, by removing as much as poffible the forrows of thofe, who have lived in undeferved bondage, and from which, by the affumed authority of the kings of Great-Britain, no effectual legal relief could be obtained" See it was the king of Great Britain that kept us in flavery before. --Now furely, after faying fo, it cannot be poffible for them to make flaves of us again--nobody, but the king of England can do it--and I fincerely pray, that he may never have it in his power --It cannot be, that the affembly will take from us the liberty they have given, becaufe a little further they go on and fay, "we conceive ourfelves, at this particular period, extraordinarily called upon, by the bleffings which we have received, to make manifeft the fincerity of our profeffions and to give a fubftantial proof of our gratitude." If after all this, we, who by virtue of this very law (which has thofe very words in it which I have copied,) are now enjoying the fweets of that "fubftantial proof of gratitude' I fay if we fhould be plunged back into flavery, what muft we think of the meaning of all thofe words in the begining of the faid law, which feem to be a kind of creed refpecting flavery? but what is most ferious than all, what will our great father think of fuch doings? But I pray that he may be pleafed to tern the hearts of the honourable affembly from this cruel law; and that he will be pleafed to make us poor blacks deferving of his mercies.

A Correfpondent informs us that a petition is about to be prefented to the affembly by the negroes who obtained freedom by the late act, praying to be heard by counfel; and as they prefented a petition to the houfe fome time ago, on the fubject of preferving their liberty, he has requefted us to publifh it. The following he fays is a pretty exact copy:

To the honourable the Reprefentatives of the Freemen of the State of Pennfylvania,

We are fully fenfible, that an addrefs from perfons of our rank is wholly unprecedented, and we are fearful of giving offence in the attempt; but touched in the moft fenfible manner, by a dread of being deprived of that liberty which we have obtained under the late law, we venture to appear before you. In the act which gave us our freedom, we read with gratitude and joy thefe admirable fentiments contained in the preamble; a part of which we beg leave to repeat. It begins with thefe pathetic words: "When we contemplate our abhorrence of that condition, to which the army and tyranny of Great Britain were exerted to reduce us; when we look back on the variety of dangers to which we have been expofed, and how miraculouly our wants in many inftances have been fupplied, and our deliverances wrought, when even hope and human fortitude had become unequal to the conflict, we are unavoidably led to a ferious and grateful fenfe of the manifold bleffings which we have undefervedly received from the hand of that being, from whom every good and perfect give cometh Impreffed with thefe ideas, we conceive that it is our duty, and we re[j]oice that is in our power, to extend a portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us, and a releafe from that flate of thraldom, to which we ourfelves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every profpect of being fpeedily relieved," &c. We your petitioners are a few amongft the great number in this ftate, who have derived freedom from that claufe which directs all flaves to be regiftered by a certain day, of which we have obtained certificates from the cleark of the feffions.

Juft emerging from a flate of hereditary flavery, and enjoying the fweets of that freedom fo forceably defcribed in the preamble, it is with the utmoft poignancy of grief, that we are informed your honourable houfe are about to pafs a law to return us to our late mafters, and allow them a ftill further time for regiftering us as flaves. Whilft it pleafed the great author of our beings to continue us in flavery, we fubmitted to our hard lot, and bore it with habitual patience; but refcued from our mifery, and tafting the fweets of that liberty, for the defence of which this whole continent is now involved in war, we fhall deem our felves the moft wretched of the human race, if the propofed act fhould take place. Raifed to the pinnacle of human happinefs by a law unfought and unexpected by us, we find ourfelves p[l]unged into all the horrors of hateful flavery; made doubly irkfome by the fmall portion of freedom we have already enjoyed. Not having by any act of ours deprived ourfelves of the common rights of mankind, we were happy to find the houfe fympathing in our diftrefs, and declaring that we had hitherto "lived in unde[r]ferved bondage" &c. "We cannot therefore perfuade ourfelves to believe that this honorable houfe, poffeffed of fuch fentiments of humanity and benevolence, will pafs an act to make flaves of thofe whom they they have freed by law; and to whom they have reftored" the common bleffings "they were by nature entitled to." We fear we are too bold, but our all is a ftake. The grand queftion of flavery or liberty, is too important for us to be filent--It is the momentous perfon of our lives; if we are filent this day, we may be filent for ever; returned into flavery we are deprived of even the right of petitioning; and this emboldens us to grafp the prefent moment, and to pray on behalf of ourfelves and a number of our unhappy colour, that this houfe will not pafs the bill. And we further pray that you may long poffefs that heart felt peace and joy, which will ever arife in the humane breaft, when fuccefsfully employed in the relief of mifery and diftrefs.

Fearful of the danger and delay, we have not allowed ourfelves time to collect the names of others within this city, whofe cafes are fimilar to ours: but on the feelings of the honorable houfe and not on our numbers do we build our hopes.

Credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania


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