Cato’s Letter and Petition to the Pennsylvania Assembly


I AM a poor negro, who with myself and children have had the good fortune to get my freedom, by means of an act of assembly passed on the first of March 1780, and should now with my family be as happy a set of people as any on the face of the earth; but I am told the assembly are going to pass a law to send us all back to our masters. Why dear Mr. Printer, this would be the cruellest act that ever a sett 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 masters 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 slavery were hard enough to bear: but having tasted the sweets of freedom, we should now be miserable indeed. —Surely no christian gentlemen can be so cruel! I cannot believe they will pass such a law. —I have read the act which made me free, and I always read it with joy—and I always dwell with particular pleasure on the following words, spoken by the assembly in the top of the said law. “We esteem it a particular blessing granted to us, that we are enabled this day to add one more step to universal civilization, by removing as much as possible the sorrows of those, who have lived in undeserved bondage, and from which, by the assumed 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 slavery before. —Now surely, after saying so, it cannot be possible for them to make slaves of us again—nobody, but the king of England can do it—and I sincerely pray, that he may never have it in his power. —It cannot be, that the assembly will take from us the liberty they have given, because a little further they go on and say, “we conceive ourselves, at this particular period, extraordinarily called upon, by the blessings which we have received, to make manifest the sincerity of our professions and to give a substantial proof of our gratitude.” If after all this, we, who by virtue of this very law (which has those very words in it which I have copied,) are now enjoying the sweets of that “substantial proof of gratitude” I say if we should be plunged back into slavery, what must we think of the meaning of all those words in the begining of the said law, which seem to be a kind of creed respecting slavery? but what is most serious than all, what will our great father think of such doings? But I pray that he may be pleased to tern the hearts of the honourable assembly from this cruel law; and that he will be pleased to make us poor blacks deserving of his mercies.


A Correspondent informs us that a petition is about to be presented to the assembly by the negroes who obtained freedom by the late act, praying to be heard by counsel; and as they presented a petition to the house some time ago, on the subject of preserving their liberty, he has requested us to publish it. The following he says is a pretty exact copy:

To the honourable the Representatives of the Freemen of the State of Pennsylvania,

We are fully sensible, that an address from persons of our rank is wholly unprecedented, and we are fearful of giving offence in the attempt; but touched in the most sensible 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 these admirable sentiments contained in the preamble; a part of which we beg leave to repeat. It begins with these 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 exposed, and how miraculouly our wants in many instances have been supplied, and our deliverances wrought, when even hope and human fortitude had become unequal to the conflict, we are unavoidably led to a serious and grateful sense of the manifold blessings which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that being, from whom every good and perfect give cometh. Impressed with these 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 release from that state of thraldom, to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every prospect of being speedily relieved,” &c. We your petitioners are a few amongst the great number in this state, who have derived freedom from that clause which directs all slaves to be registered by a certain day, of which we have obtained certificates from the cleark of the sessions.

Just emerging from a state of hereditary slavery, and enjoying the sweets of that freedom so forceably described in the preamble, it is with the utmost poignancy of grief, that we are informed your honourable house are about to pass a law to return us to our late masters, and allow them a still further time for registering us as slaves. Whilst it pleased the great author of our beings to continue us in slavery, we submitted to our hard lot, and bore it with habitual patience; but rescued from our misery, and tasting the sweets of that liberty, for the defence of which this whole continent is now involved in war, we shall deem our selves the most wretched of the human race, if the proposed act should take place. Raised to the pinnacle of human happiness by a law unsought and unexpected by us, we find ourselves p[l]unged into all the horrors of hateful slavery; made doubly irksome by the small portion of freedom we have already enjoyed. Not having by any act of ours deprived ourselves of the common rights of mankind, we were happy to find the house sympathing in our distress, and declaring that we had hitherto “lived in unde[r]served bondage” &c.” We cannot therefore persuade ourselves to believe that this honorable house, possessed of such sentiments of humanity and benevolence, will pass an act to make slaves of those whom they have freed by law; and to whom they have restored “the common blessings” they were by nature entitled to.” We fear we are too bold, but our all is at stake. The grand question of slavery or liberty, is too important for us to be silent—It is the momentous person of our lives; if we are silent this day, we may be silent for ever; returned into slavery we are deprived of even the right of petitioning; and this emboldens us to grasp the present moment, and to pray on behalf of ourselves and a number of our unhappy colour, that this house will not pass the bill. And we further pray that you may long possess that heart felt peace and joy, which will ever arise in the humane breast, when successfully employed in the relief of misery and distress.

Fearful of the danger and delay, we have not allowed ourselves time to collect the names of others within this city, whose cases are similar to ours: but on the feelings of the honorable house and not on our numbers do we build our hopes.